Lakeland city commissioners today discussed the hot-button issue of police body cameras and concluded that they want to hear from other Florida cities about their experiences with the devices.

Body-worn cameras can help resolve complaints, identify and correct potential internal-agency problems, and strengthen accountability between the public and police, Police Chief Ruben Garcia said during a workshop held this morning to discuss body cameras.

But Garcia also said body cameras bring a high price tag for equipment and the storage and maintaining of large volumes of data — up to $9 million over the first 10 years.

“Certainly, there is a perception that the body-worn camera is a useful tool,” Garcia said. “They do tend to establish another layer of accountability to the public and for the police department.”

Today’s workshop grew out of listening sessions Mayor Bill Mutz and city commissioners held following last spring’s racial justice protests. Mutz said in September he had talked with a lot of people in Lakeland about racial justice, and two topics come up in every conversation: creating economic opportunity and outfitting police officers with body cameras.

There’s no longer a shortage of data or experience with body cams in Florida because they are used in 131 cities and 32 of the state’s 67 counties, Mutz said at the time.

A body-worn camera combines the technology of a camera and microphone, it stands up to weather, and is impact resistant. It sends data from its internal memory storage to a server.

| Ryan Johnson | Flickr

Some logistical caveats for the department include developing new procedures to merge the camera technology with the department’s dashboard cameras and other technology, Garcia said.

Commissioners and Garcia discussed if body-worn cameras are even necessary in Lakeland.

Last year, LPD received about 102,000 calls for service, Garcia said. Of those calls, 15 resulted in formal external citizen complaints, with four allegations of excessive force and two for bias-based policing. None of the complaints was sustained, he said.

In 2019, there were 22 formal complaints. In 2020, there were 15. LPD fielded 99.93% of calls in 2020 that were not complaints, Garcia said.

There was also discussion about the cost benefit of integrating the devices. The cost to equip 200 officers with cameras is estimated at $90,000, and they would have to be replaced every five years, Garcia said.

But the biggest cost is storing and maintaining the data, with storage costs estimated at up to $540,000 a year, he said.

Total costs, including in-car-video equipment, data and the personnel needed to maintain the equipment and handle public information requests, are estimated at $1.87 million the first year and $9 million over the first 10 years, he said.

Interim Commissioner Don Selvage weighed in with the importance of researching how other cities have fared with them. It’s important, he said, to investigate the use of body-worn cameras from a practical lens.

“I’d want to see a presentation on facts that other cities have experienced rather than an emotional plea,” he said. “This is one of those arguments that can be overtaken by emotion.” 

Commissioner Stephanie Madden posed the challenge of needing to be nimble to coordinate the implementation of the devices while integrating other technology improvements. She also said she is concerned about funding, especially in light of the Lakeland police union arguing for more pay.

“To dedicate funds in a significant way, I need to know that our current force feels adequately provided for, before we start to allocate funds toward this long-term, smart initiative,” Madden said.

Commissioners said they will hold another workshop to hear from representatives of other Florida cities about their experiences with body cameras.

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