I was taken aback and disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm from the St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) regarding the use of body cameras. Also, I was further alarmed by the reasons given for not implementing the cameras immediately, i.e. cost, policy and strategy for deployment.
Before retiring as assistant police chief in 2013, I spent over 33 years with the department. During that time, I had to review many allegations of police misconduct that involved one-on-one situations where a citizen made a complaint against an officer.
Unfortunately, there were no other witnesses or evidence, just the citizen’s word against the officer. The officer who is better trained at testifying was given the benefit of the doubt and the complaint was usually resolved in their favor.
Although body cameras are not a panacea, it could greatly assist with similar allegations of police misconduct by bringing proper resolution and satisfaction for both the officer and citizen.
Historically, the black community’s experience with law enforcement has been negative and dramatically different than any other community. The more affluent community tends to trust law enforcement much more; therefore, they are very skeptical of the accounts of law enforcement misconduct from those who live in the economically challenged communities.
Think about it and ask yourself, how many times have the majority of citizens rallied around and supported misconduct allegations against law enforcement made by minorities without proof of video? Research has shown that body cameras reduce false complaints from citizens and encourages law enforcement officers to behave appropriately. It also helps build trust between the two.
Using the reason that we have to figure out how to deploy body cameras is interesting when you consider that the technology is not new and has been successfully implemented by many agencies, locally and throughout the country. Not to mention, the SPPD has some of the best and the brightest personnel working.
In terms of cost, mayors and police chiefs always find funding for those things that are a priority to them. The SPPD has a budget of approximately $100 million and if that is not enough, they also have the forfeiture fund available to them, which has been utilized for purchasing everything from larger caliber guns to technology totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions over the years.
I am not suggesting that all 550 officers are issued a body camera; however, those who are the most visible, i.e. patrol officers and those who are in critical units with the most contact with citizens, should be considered first. For decades, the SPPD has been a leader and on the forefront when it comes to policies and policing. The department often sets the tone for other agencies to follow.
In this case, the SPPD unnecessarily lags behind. Any reasonable technology, such as body cameras, that can assist with reducing community distrust, media skepticism and false complaints should be more than welcome and not left on a shelf.
Cedric F. Gordon
Retired Assistant Chief of Police
St. Petersburg Police Department