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For the past two months, city leaders have discussed and debated the question of whether a body camera program for the police department is needed and worth the high cost. That question was answered Aug. 6 when the City Council unanimously agreed to pay roughly $2.56 million over five years to implement the program. Just over $2.2 million of that will go to Axon Enterprise Inc. for the purchase of equipment, including 200 cameras, digital evidence storage and management, licensing and training.

CLEARWATER — For the past two months, city leaders have discussed and debated the question of whether a body camera program for the police department is needed and worth the high cost.

That question was answered Aug. 6 when the City Council unanimously agreed to pay roughly $2.56 million over five years to implement the program.

Just over $2.2 million of that will go to Axon Enterprise Inc. for the purchase of equipment, including 200 cameras, digital evidence storage and management, licensing and training.

Chief Dan Slaughter had previously urged council members to temper expectations about cameras because, while helpful, he said they are not a solution, noting that the Minneapolis department had cameras when George Floyd was killed.

But now that he does have them, he said the department would make the most of them.

“We’ve already talked internally. We’re already prepared for this, and we’re moving forward and embracing it,” he said. “We’re not resisting it. We’re embracing it. We’re going to use these videos like an offensive coordinator with their offensive line to get better and do a better job. So, I think we’re excited about it.”

Mayor Frank Hibbard had been conflicted about the program, but voted to move ahead Aug. 6 because he sees benefits to both the community and the department.

“I hope that this gives citizens and some of our communities some solace,” he said. “At the same time, I believe that this is also protection for our officers, because I really believe our officers are out there doing the right things.”

He once again emphasized that the cameras are fallible and not a panacea, emphasizing instead that current policies and de-escalation training are the true reasons for the department’s success.

Slaughter had previously pointed out that, of the 5,860 arrests the department made last year, officers only used force 175 times, or about 2.9% of the time. He added that the department conducted nine internal affairs investigations in 2019 related to use of force and two of those cases led to discipline.

Aiming for March

Purchasing the equipment is only the first step, however.

Slaughter said he doesn’t expect the program to be rolled out until March, because policies need to be nailed down and training needs to be conducted.

“This is going to take time to implement this thing perfectly,” he said.

One of those policies that needs to be constructed is when and under what circumstances will the cameras be turned on.

The cameras will be automatically activated if a Taser or firearm is taken out, but Slaughter said that’s not enough.

“I am not in favor of having a system that only is activated upon removal of the firearm,” he said.

Officers will be able to turn the cameras on with the double-push of a button, but the department must also consider the privacy rights of citizens, Slaughter said.

“Whether or not we turn it on and have them activate it every time they get out of the car, or do we have them turn it on every time they get out in an enforcement scenario? There are some things that we still have to internally discuss,” he said.

Once the policies are in place, officers will then need to be well-versed in them, which will take some time.

“We want to have some ability to have some scenario-based training with these officers and let them have some roles where they could get use and start developing the muscle memory to turn it on,” he said.

Council member Mark Bunker said he understands why it would be important to give officers’ time to get familiar with the new equipment.

“As somebody who has been shooting video for 20-plus years, I know there are times when I think I’m recording and I’m not, and I understand how those incidents can happen,” he said. “But I have faith in the chief and the department that we can carry this off effectively and it would be a benefit to the community.”

High cost

That benefit comes with a hefty price tag.

In addition to the five-year, $2.2 million contract with the Arizona-based Axon, the department will have to pay almost $69,000 annually to hire a new records clerk to manage records requests and convert an officer to a sergeant in order to add a layer of oversight.

Uniform modifications also might have to be made.

About $175,000 will come from a federal forfeiture fund, but the rest will come from the general fund.

The department also will change the way it conducts deadly force investigations.

The council unanimously voted to allow the department to join the newly created Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force spearheaded by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

It is comprised of three detectives each from the Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg Police Department, Clearwater Police Department, and one detective from the Pinellas Park Police Department.

So, if a Clearwater officer is involved in an altercation where deadly force is used, the Sheriff’s Office will now take the lead in the investigation. The agency that employs the law enforcement officer will not be involved at all.