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USF study: Police body cameras reduced use of force, complaints

TAMPA — The use of body cameras by law enforcement is still in its infancy, but a University of South Florida study says the technology is building confidence between at least one Florida police department and the community it serves.

USF researchers and the Orlando Police Department teamed up in March 2014 to study the results of 46 officers who were equipped with body cameras and 43 officers who did not wear the device.

When the study concluded in February 2015, researchers discovered that body cameras reduced the number of times police officers used force by 53 percent and dropped the number of complaints against officers by 65 percent.

Wesley Jennings, principal investigator for the study and associate chair of USF’s Department of Criminology, said when the university began its preliminary studies on body cameras, the technology was not being widely used by law enforcement.

“But now we’re showing the demonstrated effectiveness of it,” he said.

USF researchers say the study was the first of its kind nationally. It included an examination of official police records and employed officer surveys and face-to-face interviews between officers and USF criminologists regarding attitudes toward the body cameras and the officers who wore them.

Most of the officers included in the study felt the cameras should be worn by everyone in the department, the study reported.

Officers reported that in addition to de-escalating confrontations, reviewing the camera recordings helped them with collecting evidence, remembering events and minimizing errors.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded the Orlando Police Department about $497,000 in September for a body camera program that runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2017.

The body cameras, Jennings said, initially cost about $600 each. But additional costs for data storage and equipment maintenance increased the price tag to about $1,000 per camera.

Orlando police said the study has backed up the department’s decision to use the cameras.

“We believe the use of body cameras will strengthen community trust, improve accountability and transparency, protect our officers from false complaints and provide valuable evidence for prosecutors,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina said in a statement provided by the police department.

Jennings said USF wants to expand its research by finding other agencies that are willing to participate. The study of the Orlando Police Department’s use of body cameras used general research money and was not funded by companies or vendors of body cameras, Jennings said.

“We -- the research team -- as representatives of USF did it for the science and for the opportunity to be involved in this important research for the police and the community,” Jennings said.

In West-Central Florida, the Temple Terrace Police Department, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the Sarasota Police Department have adopted body cameras, and the Tampa Police Department has started a pilot program.

All of the Pasco County deputies are equipped with cameras, Jennings said, making it difficult to study their effectiveness because there is no control group of deputies without cameras to use for comparison.

The university is helping the Tampa Police Department conduct a similar study.

In January, the Tampa City Council unanimously approved spending $83,000 to purchase 60 Taser Axon Flex cameras and video storage system. Over the next five years, the cost of storing video footage, software licenses and other expenses is expected to total about $287,000.

The money comes from the police forfeiture fund, which includes cash and property seized in criminal investigations.

Eighteen officers in each of the department’s three districts and six bike officers were issued the cameras after a week of training on how and when they should use them. The cameras, which are about the size of a lipstick tube, are turned on at the start of the officers’ shifts. They record everything from traffic stops and building checks to suspect pursuits and arrests.

Officers are required to inform crime victims that they are being recorded, and they can choose to have the camera turned off.

Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said it is too early to tell if the department is having the same success as Orlando police.

“Ours is a yearlong study ... so, we’re still several months away from seeing any results,” Hegarty said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has no plans to use body cameras. The cameras would require too much records maintenance, said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Debbie Carter, and cost taxpayers too much money.

“The main thing is the sheer cost,” Carter said. “We’re a much larger agency. It’s just not cost effective for an agency this size.”

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