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Saturday, Nov 17, 2018
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After a harrowing night, this Pinellas cop backs body cameras: ‘They can’t lie’

INDIAN SHORES — Officer Matthew Holm shined a flashlight at the oncoming car, the bright beam cutting through the early morning darkness in this sleepy beach town. He motioned for the driver to pull over. Instead, the car accelerated right at him.

Holm fired his gun once at the black Mazda before it hit him. The Indian Shores police officer landed on the hood, rolled up the windshield and then fell off the side.

Four months later, a defense attorney took aim at the officer.

The driver, who was arrested in the May 1 incident and is now in jail, got a bail hearing in August. A public defender challenged the officer’s account.

"They didn’t believe it happened the way I said it did," Holm said. "She basically said I don’t have any integrity."

RELATED: Body cameras now standard gear for Florida cops. But not in Tampa Bay

Holm thinks there’s a technology that could have helped him prove he was telling the truth: body cameras.

"Cameras are the best independent witnesses," Holm said. "They can’t lie."

In Tampa Bay law enforcement, Holm is an outlier. The Indian Shores Police Department doesn’t use them. Neither do many of the region’s biggest law enforcement agencies, calling them unnecessary, complicated and expensive.

Holm said he’s always supported body cameras. They help keep officers accountable, he said. But after having his word questioned in court, after almost being seriously injured or worse in the line of duty, now he’s a firm believer.

"We are in the public eye. We are public servants," he said. "And when I see a camera on my body, I won’t have to worry about someone complaining about me, because everything will be recorded."

• • •

Body cameras have been widely adopted by many law enforcement agencies across the state and country. But in the bay area, few agencies use them. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the Temple Terrace Police Department both adopted body cameras. Both say they are effective at tracking citizen and police misconduct. The Pasco agency often posts deputies’ body camera footage online.

Other departments have said the cost is too steep. Some aren’t convinced of the benefits.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has long opposed the devices. He has said he doesn’t think "wiring up" his deputies is the best way to improve trust with the community, that it’s "offensive" for those officers who do the right thing.

Holm disagrees.

After he was struck, Holm radioed for help and relayed a description of the vehicle. Backup officers found him lying on the side of the road. Holm said his whole body was hurting.

After a chase, driving on punctured tires, then evading police dogs and a helicopter for an hour while hiding in mangroves by the Indian Rocks Nature Preserve, Stephan Weekley was arrested on May 1. He now faces a charge of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.

Holm was taken to Largo Medical Center for treatment. He sustained numerous scrapes and bruises to his left arm and both knees.

Then he went home and fell asleep almost immediately, having worked almost 12 hours. But detectives kept waking him up, asking him more questions. If they had video of the incident, the officer said, that would have helped the investigation.

He started thinking about the terrible hypotheticals. What if he had been left unconscious? What if he couldn’t call for back-up? What if he had been killed? How would they have found the driver?

How would his new family have found out what had happened to him? Holm, 33, had just returned to duty three weeks after the birth of his first son. He and his wife have been married for just over a year and a half.

"Once you’re involved in an incident like this," Holm said, "you can’t help but think what more could have been done, in hindsight."

• • •

Indian Shores police Capt. Ray DeCunto said buying and maintaining body cameras could be too expensive for the town. Grants would definitely help. But the city might be open to acquiring dashboard-mounted cameras for its police vehicles in the future. Indian Shores is hiring a new police chief, so it would be up to them.

"Cameras in society today is a very touchy topic," DeCunto said. "They don’t totally paint the whole picture."

The captain said body cameras aren’t foolproof. They can’t capture everything. But DeCunto said they could help the police prove cases in court and build trust with the community: "I think that’s a positive for law enforcement as well as the citizens."

The driver accused of striking the officer now sits in the county jail, held in lieu of $205,000 bail. It will be months before he stands trial.

Holm has hours of preparation ahead for the court case. Video footage sure would come in handy, he said.

"Everyone knows a picture is worth a thousand words and video, well, that’s everything," the officer said. "It’s undeniable — it’s 100 percent truthful."

"No one could say this video camera lied."

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected] Follow @suhaunah.

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