One Year In: Fla. county sheriffs use body cameras to bolster accountability

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When the Pasco County, Florida Sheriff’s Office decided to equip hundreds of its deputies with body-worn cameras last year, Lt. Gary Raulerson said there was a healthy amount of skepticism about the move.

Now, a year into the program, Raulerson believes that uncertainty has lifted.

“We’re at a point where folks don’t want to be without a camera,” Raulerson said during a webinar hosted by the International Public Safety Association on Wednesday. “If they can’t come to work with it, they’re wanting to get whatever the problem is resolved.”

In the webinar — sponsored by the company that provides Pasco County with the body camera systems, Taser International — Raulerson laid out how his office has used the cameras over the last year to hold deputies more accountable to their supervisors and the public.

Raulerson said the office, under the leadership of Sheriff Chris Nocco, first started considering the technology in early 2014. As many deputies began buying small, lightweight cameras of their own, Raulerson noted that the office had no choice but to try to formalize the process.

“They saw the need to have protection from complaints and to capture evidence,” Raulerson said. “But they were getting way outside of potential policies that would protect them or set how this evidence would be used.”

Accordingly, Nocco banned these private camera purchases and set about looking into buying body cameras for the whole office, Raulerson said. By the end of the year, the office was able to sign a contract with Taser.

As it became clear that the program would become a reality, Raulerson and the rest of the office’s leadership worked to develop a clear policy governing how the cameras would be used. They looked at policies in other cities as models and solicited feedback from deputies to craft the document in time for the program’s start.

[Read more: Body cameras bills explode in popularity among state lawmakers in 2015]

By January 2015, they’d finished the procurement process, and targeted Feb. 4, 2015, as the day to fully deploy the 400 cameras the office acquired, Raulerson said.

But first came a three-week training window, where each deputy that would use the cameras participated in a three-hour crash course on how to use the technology and the office’s policies. Raulerson said that process helped them see the gaps in the first policy they drafted.

“We had the best starting point that we had could, and on the first day of training camp we had a policy revision,” Raulerson said.

With all the deputies trained and a final policy developed, Raulerson said the office was able to meet its target date for deployment. Starting last February, every deputy in the patrol, traffic and DUI enforcement units began wearing the cameras. Even specialized units — like SWAT teams, canine handlers and some investigative teams — started using the technology.

Raulerson said those deputies are required to record every call for service they respond to, every interaction they have with a citizen and any other situation they deem necessary.

At the end of each day, they upload the footage to Taser’s “Evidence.com” cloud storage platform and tag the videos with metadata descriptors — Raulerson noted the office currently stores 170,000 videos, for a total of over 25 terabytes of data, on the service.

Deputies can then get access to footage ahead of writing a report about an incident or testifying about it in court — a practice frowned upon by civil rights groups — and have to keep careful records of every time they view videos and why they chose to do so, according to Raulerson.

The lieutenant added that supervisors in the office have to watch one video of one of their deputies per month for “quality assurance” that the cameras are being operated properly, and to ensure deputies are turning them on when they should be. Raulerson said almost all embraced the technology wholeheartedly, but these reviews did lead them to part ways with one deputy who regularly didn’t follow the office’s body camera policies.

However, he noted that these reviews more often lead to “teaching moments,” to help build trust and buy-in for the program.

“Body-worn camera footage is not going to be used as somebody sitting behind a desk on a fishing expedition to jam folks up,” Raulerson said.

Raulerson added he thinks the program has helped make the office more transparent to the public, as these videos are now easily shareable with public records requesters or the public defender’s office.

Because of those positive experiences, Raulerson sees no end to the program in sight.

“We’re able to improve accountability for not only agency members, but citizens as well, and hold them accountable for false complaints,” Raulerson said.

StateScoop’s “One Year In” series evaluates people, projects and programs that are a year into their life cycle. Check back with StateScoop for more installments in the coming weeks. To read more installments in this series, click here.

Contact the reporter at alex.koma@statescoop.com, and follow him on Twitter @AlexKomaSNG.

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Body Cameras, Emerging Technology, Florida, Freedom of Information Act, Law Enforcement, Open Government, Public Safety, State & Local News, States, Tech News, transparency
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