A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a bill that would require law-enforcement agencies to establish policies for the proper use of body cameras if the agencies allow officers to wear the devices.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously passed the measure (SPB 7080), which would require law-enforcement agencies to establish policies and procedures addressing the proper use, maintenance and storage of body cameras and the data they record.
That includes training officers who use the cameras and performing “a periodic review of actual agency body-camera practices to ensure conformity with the agency’s policies and procedures.”
Body cams are worn by deputies at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Jim Manfre instituted the practice when he took office in 2013 and has been an ardent defender of the cameras. In interviews, he said the cameras triggered some initial resistance in the ranks, but were then accepted as an additional means of protection against false charges or claims made against deputies. Cameras are turned on and off at the deputies’ discretion. The footage is then uploaded to a server for archiving, at minimal cost to the sheriff’s office.
Currently, Florida law does not require police agencies to have policies governing the use of such technology.
“We’re saying to law enforcement: ‘OK, if you want to use ’em, this is what they have to be,’ ” committee chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, said.
But senators also emphasized their concern that the measure should not violate part of state law that makes it a third-degree felony to “intercept an oral communication.” Under the bill, that provision would not apply to police wearing body cameras.
“If I stop to get a cup of coffee as a law-enforcement officer and I capture other conversations that are occurring behind me or in front of me … we’re essentially listening in on conversations that are occurring in public,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “And there is no consent provided for listening in on those conversations.”
But Evers said the recordings would only be used when officers are performing their duties.
“It’s only for law-enforcement activities,” he said after the meeting. “If by chance they happened to overhear another conversation … it’s erased, there’s no record of it, and it didn’t happen. Because there is a privacy concern that’s located in the bill and located here in this chamber that will see that that’s the way it is.”
Evers predicted the Senate would back the committee bill, which does not have a House companion.
Supporters of the measure include the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the Florida Public Defender Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
According to the Police Benevolent Association, 13 Florida police departments use the cameras — the cities of Miami, Miami Beach, Cocoa, Daytona Beach, Daytona Beach Shores, Gulfport, Pensacola, Eustis, West Melbourne, Windermere and Rockledge. So do Palm Bay SWAT officers and the motorcycle officers at Florida State University.
Nine more police departments have put pilot programs in place to test their use — Clearwater, Fort Myers, Marianna, Orlando, Plant City, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Tampa and West Palm Beach.
There could be additional funding for such programs. In December, President Obama proposed a three-year, $263 million legislative package to increase the use of body-worn cameras and expand such training for law-enforcement agencies. Part of the federal initiative would provide a 50 percent match to states and local entities that purchase body-worn cameras and requisite storage.
–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida