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Saturday, May 27, 2017
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St. Petersburg's mayor, police chief promised dashboard cameras, but City Council hits the brakes

ST. PETERSBURG — Over the objections of the mayor's office, the City Council voted 5-2 on Thursday to delay buying dashboard cameras for new police vehicles.

City Council member Karl Nurse led the charge, saying the St. Petersburg Police Department is well-trained and doesn't need to keep a visual record of officers doing their job.

Nurse said an officer hasn't been involved in an "unjustified" shooting since 2013. That's when an officer was fired for shooting at a moving vehicle that did not pose a danger to himself.

Instead, Nurse wants the city to invest in gunfire-locating technology that could quickly identify where gunshots have been fired.

"It's a terrible waste of money," Nurse said of the $87,000 it would cost to install 15 dashboard cameras in new police vehicles. "We're being panicked by bad stories we see by bad departments.

"But we don't have a bad department. We all know we have a gunfire problem."

And Nurse doesn't want to stop there. He doesn't think St. Petersburg police officers should have to wear body cameras, either.

Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies are split on the use of bodycams, which the ACLU sees as a "check against the abuse of power by police officers."

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office uses bodycams and regularly posts videos of deputies subduing suspects to Facebook. The Tampa Police Department uses body cameras, but has not issued them to the entire force. The Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices do not use them and do not plan to do so.

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway has been weighing the body camera issue ever since he was hired in 2014. He was appointed co-chair of chaired a national task force on body cameras and his department is experimenting with gun-mounted cameras. The department has been studying the issue for a year and said there is no time line for making a decision.

Nurse backed his idea by presenting data that showed much of the city's gun violence and activity takes place in a 3-square-mile area, most of which is in Midtown.

He said the money would be better spent on audio technology that can pinpoint gunfire so that police can respond faster.

Covering the Midtown area with the technology would cost about $347,000, he said, a fraction of the approximately $2 million it would cost to outfit all 382 marked police vehicles with dashboard cameras. Only about 30 police vehicles have them.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin urged council members to reject Nurse's motion to delay buying dashboard cameras. She said Mayor Rick Kriseman and the police chief have both promised residents that new police vehicles would be equipped with those cameras.

"Right now, we enjoy relative trust between the Police Department and our community," Tomalin said. "One of the chief reasons is that the chief and mayor have had ongoing conversations with the community and made promises — one of those is transparency."

She also said dashboard cameras and gunshot detection systems shouldn't be framed as an either-or debate.

But most of the council sided with Nurse. Members Amy Foster, Jim Kennedy, Ed Montanari and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman all voted to defer buying the cameras. Wheeler-Bowman, who represents much of Midtown, said the fear of gunfire is common.

Steve Kornell and Charlie Gerdes voted against the motion. They said the city should pursue both dashboard cameras and gunfire-locating technology.

"I don't see them as mutually exclusive, " Kornell said. "We don't have a systemic issue. (But) to say we have no problem at all? I don't think any department on earth (would say) that we have no problem at all."

Council chairwoman Darden Rice wasn't present for the vote.

During the discussion, Holloway said transparency is important to maintain a good relationship with the community.

"When a citizen comes in and wants to file a complaint and (asks) where's that dashcam," the chief said, "what's our answer?"

Holloway also said he was intrigued by gunfire-location technology. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has been using ShotSpotter, a gunshot triangulation system, since 2015.

Nurse first raised the issue during a council prep session last week. He said he doesn't believe the Police Department needs surveillance technology to hold its officers accountable.

He said in some neighborhoods there's gunfire "everyday." So the question he asks is: "How do I make people safe?"

This week, he expounded further on the issue:

"We don't have a dysfunctional police department," Nurse said. "There are clearly dysfunctional police departments in this country. But we don't have one."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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