Lakeland city commissioners agreed today to continue discussing body cameras for police officers after hearing officials from two other Florida cities say the cameras have become essential policing tools that once-skeptical officers now embrace.
Presented with four options and hearing the pros and cons, commissioners agreed with Police Chief Ruben Garcia that the preferred option is to shoot for a new system that would upgrade existing in-car video modules through early replacement while purchasing body cameras and storing the massive amount of video data “in the cloud.”
The estimated cost for that option is $1.8 million in the first year and a total $4.4 million over five years. A source of funding is still to be determined, with City Manager Shawn Sherrouse saying his staff would look into federal grants and Mayor Bill Mayor raising the possibility of a one-year millage increase to pay the initial costs.
When city commissioners discussed body cameras in March, they said they wanted to hear how they’ve worked in other medium-sized Florida cities. Today they heard from police officials from Kissimmee and Cape Coral.
Citing transparency and performance improvements, Kissimmee Police Chief Jeffrey O’Dell told commissioners he was a proponent.
“I believe the body camera improves behavior on both sides of the equation — not only our officers and their professionalism but members of the public when they know that they’re on camera,” O’Dell said. “It proves out more times than not that our officers were professional or within policy in most of or all of their community interactions.”
Body-worn cameras aid in the transparency of the agency, he said, and the subsequent videos can serve to promote the police department as a marketing tool by highlighting positive interactions.
“If (officers) took a few minutes to help a kid fix the chain on their bike or shoot a basketball or have a great conversation, we highlighted those,” O’Dell said. “We’ve reinforced that we’re also looking for the great things that we do every day.”
One of the hallmarks of body-worn cameras is reduced citizen complaints, said Lt. Allan Kolak of the Cape Coral Police Department. Officers were skeptical at first, but now he’s witnessed officers who don’t want to go out in the field without their body cameras because the video verifies their professionalism, he said.
“They want that camera,” Kolak said. “They want to have it on video because they know they’re doing the right thing and they want to make sure that it’s captured.”
Newly elected Commissioner Mike Musick raised the issue of bystanders getting caught unwittingly on the videos. “That’s where my concern lies — the third party who happens to be around the area, now that video is being stored and can be requested,” Musick said. It was a theme he touted several times on the campaign trail.
O’Dell told him that concern is new to him. But there’s the option to redact or blur the faces if needed, used mostly when police enter private property.
Lakeland Public Safety IT Manager Robert Steele presented slides outlining four options and their costs:
- Continue with the existing use of in-car cameras with upgrades completed by 2025. Five-year cost: $1.2 million.
- Phase in body-worn cameras by fall 2024 while upgrading car cameras by spring 2024. Five-year cost: $3.2 million.
- Plan for a hybrid of the two technologies with body cameras deployed by spring 2023 and dash cams upgraded by 2025. Five-year cost: $3.6 million.
- Implement a new system, with body cameras ready by spring 2023 and in-car video upgrades by fall 2023. Five-year cost: $4.4 million.
The cost estimates include equipment, training and storage.
Commissioner Chad McLeod asked Steele about the price quotes from vendors and if the costs would be spread out vs. taking a fiscal hit year over year.
While reiterating that the biggest financial impact is the storage, Steele said costs might be mitigated with competitive pricing. But that between “all these vendors, there is not a huge significant savings in storage costs.”
McLeod asked about the timeframe and the next steps, and Mayor Bill Mutz responded that the commisison’s June 7 meeting would be the earliest they can move the discussion of body cameras forward.
“Personally, I would love to see them deployed by spring of 2023,” Mutz added.
But he allowed for the complications of implementing the service while maximizing customer service and protection to citizens, while minimizing complications. “It takes time to get this all done,” Mutz said.
McLeod responded to the suggestion of a possible one-year increase in property tax rates to pay initial costs: “When we talk about small millage increase — for me, I would have to know that we have left no stone unturned on the expense side before we go the well of the millage increase,” he said. “Maybe we don’t even have to.”
All six commissioners present gave their thumbs up to moving the conversation forward; Commissioner Bill Read had left the meeting by this point. Mutz reminded them it would be important to balance all of the factors involved in the decision to implement body-worn cameras.
“I would personally advocate that we consider the community quality of protection in this, to advocate for the most protective tools that we have in place, while also the quality of implementation timing that takes place,” he said.