Commission OKs sheriff’s request to fund body-worn cameras

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri asks the County Commission for money to pay for body-worn cameras for his deputies during a Jan. 26 meeting.

LARGO — Pinellas County commissioners gave unanimous approval Jan. 26 to a request from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri for money to equip 875 deputies with body-worn cameras.

The request for the current fiscal year, which runs through September, is $3.8 million. The money includes $254,090 for personnel and $3.575 in operating expenses.

Gualtieri announced his intent to use body cameras in October after a community-wide push pointed to a need to help build trust between the public and law enforcement.

Gualtieri had not supported the use of body cameras in the past due to costs and the fact that his agency’s cruisers were already equipped with dash cams. He didn’t think body cameras would add anything of value to what the sheriff’s office was already doing.

However, what he described as “evolving industry standards” along with community input caused him to take a second look. He started with a field trial involving 30 deputies with Axon Enterprises Inc. based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

In a Jan. 8 memo to County Administrator Barry Burton, Gualtieri wrote that he had “aggressively negotiated pricing with Axon to obtain the most cost effective option.” However, body-worn cameras were not included in the sheriff’s FY 2021 budget and Gualtieri now needs money to pay for them.

He submitted documentation supporting his funding needs that included the cost of hardware for the cameras and integrated in-car cameras video systems, plus recurring monthly per-deputy costs, technology expenses and personnel costs to administer the program.

Gualtieri negotiated a six-year contract for $19.9 million. The cost to the sheriff’s office for personnel and other needs is $4.9 million to bring the total to $24.8 million.

For the remainder of 2021, the cost is $3.8 million. Cost for years two through five will be about $4.5 million a year and the cost for year six, about nine months, will be approximately $3 million.

Gualtieri requested that the money be made available as soon as possible so he can get every deputy equipped before March.

Burton said the sheriff’s request would come from General Fund reserves this year and then become part of the budget for subsequent years. He added that it doesn’t look as if the pandemic will have as big of an impact on the budget as initially thought.

“We’re OK financially,” he said.

Commission Chair Dave Eggers asked about the circumstances that might results in a deputy turning off his or her camera.

Gualtieri said the policy developed during the field trial involves capturing as many events as possible, but focuses on enforcement actions. In other words, anytime a gun or Taser (non-lethal electroshock weapon) is involved.

He said the camera would not be on when deputies were in hospitals. He said victims would be informed anytime it is on and would be able to request that it be turned off.

“Cameras won’t be on all the time, but they will be on when necessary,” he said, adding that the use of cameras was a “work in progress.”

He said the policy in use during the field trials had proven successful.

“So far so good,” he said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.