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Body cams, deadly force investigations in spotlight at Pinellas County, St. Pete City Council meetings

Margie Manning

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St. Petersburg police (Photo credit: City of St. Petersburg)

Every St. Petersburg police officer could be wearing a body camera by late October or early November, under a timeline spelled out by Police Chief Anthony Holloway.

The total annual cost for 450 body cameras will range from $1.7 million to $2.4 million a year, Holloway told the City Council Thursday during a discussion of the budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The budget update was one of two local government conversations Thursday that focused on law enforcement accountability, which has come under increased scrutiny since the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis earlier this year.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri separately told the county’s Board of County Commissioners that a newly established task force will bring a dramatic change to the way the sheriff’s department and police departments throughout the county handle criminal investigations when there is officer-involved use of deadly force.

“We’ve all been eager to get past the protest and get to dialogue and policy changes,” said County Commissioner Ken Welch. “Since the George Floyd protests started, the commission asked for a review of use of policy forces countywide. The police agencies already were working on that. Most of the agencies talked about ‘8 Can’t Wait’ [a push for police reforms] compliance. The city of St. Pete has re-allocated funds to deal with certain calls in a different way, and now the sheriff working with our police agencies has rolled out this Use of Deadly Force task force. Those are some important progressive changes that are happening in our community even before a real substantive dialogue happens.”

Ready to record

The St. Petersburg police department currently is testing body camera equipment from two vendors. The technology records under a wide range of circumstances.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway

“When the officer comes on duty, the cameras will be turned on. They will be in a ready mode, ready to record. When the officer activates the lights in the car, the cameras will record. If the camera detects a gunshot, the camera will record. If the officer turns it on manually, the camera will record. If the officer pulls his or her weapon – whether it’s their gun or their taser – the camera will record,” Holloway told City Council members. “It’s always on, so it will go back 30 seconds prior to turning on the lights and that also will be recorded.”

Testing and evaluation will wrap up in mid-August, followed by a request for proposals, Holloway said.

The city expects to finance the purchase through a master lease agreement, said Tom Greene, assistant city administrator. That agreement is a type of perpetual financing mechanism that allows the city to purchase additional technologies quickly, Greene said.

A police department grant manager also is looking for grants to help pay for the body cameras, Holloway said.

Body cameras are not a panacea, said Gualtieri, who faces re-election in November.

“People say that I’m ‘opposed’ to them. That’s not accurate. I’m not opposed to them. There’s a difference between being opposed and being supportive of a particular device,” he told county commissioners.

PInellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri

The sheriff’s department takes a different approach.

“We have 560 patrol cars and every single one of them is equipped with a camera system and an audio system. Every deputy wears a microphone pack. We are downloading on a monthly basis 17,000 video events a month. Every single traffic stop, every single deputy encounter with a citizen on the street. We record a lot,” Gualtieri said.

“The St. Petersburg police department doesn’t have dash cameras. The Clearwater police department doesn’t have dash cameras. The Hillsborough County sheriff’s office doesn’t have dash cameras. All these other agencies that are talking about going to video systems, that’s because they’re doing zero. They’re not doing anything. We are doing a lot in that area.”

Body cameras for Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies would cost about $3 million, he said.

Body cameras, as well as civilian review of law enforcement actions, will be a major issue for discussion in the future, Welch said.

Seismic shift

Law enforcement has more work to do to ensure community trust, Gualtieri agreed.

That’s why he said he worked with police departments throughout Pinellas County to establish the Use of Deadly Force task force, which will change the way investigations have been conducted for the past 40 years.

In many law enforcement agencies, when an officer uses deadly force, that officer’s own agency would conduct a criminal investigation, with a parallel investigation by the state attorney, who makes the decision about whether to file criminal charges, Gualtieri said.

The new Pinellas County task force will change that model. It will be made staffed by three homicide detectives from the sheriff’s office, as well as three detectives from the St. Petersburg and Clearwater police departments and one from the  Pinellas Park police department. Instead of each agency investigating deadly force incidents in their own department, the task force will take on those investigations.

“It’s a big deal. This is a seismic shift. What we’ve all decided to do is subordinate ourselves and our officers and deputies to decision-making by an outside agency, and that is a big deal but it’s necessary and a good thing,” Gualtieri said. “It’s being changed because we recognize that we are living in different times and we need to make sure that not only what we are doing is correct, but it’s also accepted and believed to be correct by the consumers of it, and that’s the public.”

It’s a better way to build community trust, Holloway said in an interview with the St. Pete Catalyst.

“Now there is another level added on so we can prove to the people that we are doing it the right way and we are making sure that the investigations are conducted independently,” Holloway said.

Investigations will be tied to geography.

“For anything south of Ulmerton Road involving a Pinellas County deputy, my major will take the lead in the investigation and we will oversee the investigation. Anything north of Ulmerton Road will go to [Clearwater Police] Chief Slaughter and his team. And anytime one of our officers is involved, the sheriff’s office will take the lead,” Holloway said. “So if a sheriff’s officer is involved, his three detectives will not be a part of the investigation or be on the team, and vice versa. If something happened in our city, my three detectives would recuse themselves form the investigation.”

The state attorney’s office will continue to investigate separately, he said. So will the St. Petersburg police department’s office of professional standards

“Although they may say a shooting is justified, we want to make sure none of our policies were violated,” Holloway said.

He believes it will instill more confidence in the system.

“It was already done independently by the state attorney’s office but now you don’t have that agency investigating its own. Someone from the outside is looking at it,” Holloway said. “It was a great idea by the sheriff and I’m glad everyone signed on to it.”

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