Sheriff Gualtieri says he’s moving ahead with body cameras

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri tells County commissioners Oct. 6 that he is committed to implementing the use of body cameras by early 2021. He plans to ask the commission for money to pay for the new program in late November or December.

CLEARWATER — If everything goes according to plan, Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies will be equipped with body cameras by early 2021.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri answered questions about his plans to implement body cameras during the Oct. 6 Pinellas County Commission meeting. Commissioner Ken Welch broached the topic and thanked Gualtieri for taking a second look at using body cameras.

Gualtieri had not supported the use 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.

Mind-changing technology

Gualtieri said technology had drastically changed since he first started looking at body cameras in 2012. He said body cameras had been considered in the past but for reasons he didn’t go into, the sheriff’s office had not implemented their use.

However, he said advances in technology changed his mind, along with a push from the community that wants them. He said the technology had “exponentially changed for the better.”

“It is something I absolutely endorse and embrace that we need to move forward with for a whole lot of reasons,” he told commissioners.

He said in the past year, a lot of time had been spent listening to people complaining that the commission and other officials weren’t listening to the public and their constituents. He said it was no longer about worrying about individuals but instead it was about “what does the community feel.”

“And I can tell you that is something I’ve done extensively on this topic — listening to the community,” he said. “Hands down the community supports this and wants it.”

However, cost is a big factor.

The cost estimate is $3 million a year for a five-year contract for a total cost of $15 million over five years.

Gualtieri reminded commissioners that the sheriff’s office already had dash cameras in 580 cruisers and downloaded 17,000 video events every month. Those cameras and managing the public records requests that come with those videos also comes with a cost.

Adding body cameras would increase the number of public record requests and, in turn, up the cost of managing the videos and the requests. He estimates the additional administrative costs of using body cameras would be “a few hundred thousand” recurring each year.

He said the plan is not to purchase body cameras but to use a subscription model, which has a number of good attributes, such as regular replacements of the cameras. The sheriff’s office would purchase the subscription under an existing government contact that has already been negotiated.

The vendor the sheriff has chosen is the same one that Clearwater and Pinellas Park police departments are planning to use. It is the same vendor being used by the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office. As of Oct. 6, the St. Petersburg City Council had not yet picked a vendor for its body camera program.

While the sheriff is committed to moving forward with implementing body cameras, he can’t afford to do it on his own. Gualtieri said he would likely bring a request for funding to the county commission in late November or December.

He plans to begin field trials on Oct. 26 along with training that will help work out the logistics of the new program. He said he wasn’t calling it a pilot.

“A pilot is a test drive and making a decision as to whether you’re going to do it,” he said. “That ship has sailed. We’re doing this and I’m going 100% in and we’re going to implement it.”

He plans to fully implement the program sometime after the first of the year, “assuming it is something you all (the commissioners) support.

“Like I said it is just too much money (for the sheriff’s budget),” he said.

Gualtieri said he had been asked if implementing body cameras would create any “offsetting savings.” His answer was “yes, but not really anything that is going to be realized soon.”

He said the dash cams installed in the cruisers have to be “married up” to the body cameras. Currently, the cost to equip cruisers with the dash cams is part of the cost of buying the vehicle.

However, in the future it will be part of the cost of the body camera program, thus saving about $5,000 per vehicle that is leased or purchased. But that savings won’t help pay for the body camera program, he said.

Commissioner Dave Eggers said he supports the sheriff’s decision. He said it would help boost the community’s confidence in law enforcement as well as provide protections for deputies. He said a lot of work still had to be done to enact policies that protect privacy and on other details that were yet to be decided.

“This will be a positive step for the community,” he said.

Welch said he likely wouldn’t still be on the commission when it votes on whether or not to fund body cameras, which is why he wants to make sure his support is known now. This is Welch’s last term on the commission. He chose not to run for re-election this November.

“You’re right about the community support,” he told the sheriff.

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