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St. Petersburg Police To Soon Pilot Body Cams

A uniformed police officer holds up a plastic clip that secures a smartphone style device used as a body cam.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway demonstrates the BodyWorn camera six officers, including himself, will soon pilot. CREDIT: DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

The St. Petersburg Police Department soon will be testing a body camera that starts recording two minutes before an officer’s weapon is unholstered.

The decision comes about six years after Police Chief Tony Holloway first expressed support for the devices. 

The department will start by equipping six uniformed officers, including Holloway, with a smartphone-style camera that's centered on the chest. A wrist watch will help officers control the camera.

Holloway said that while the cameras will always be rolling, they won't start recording until an officer unfastens their Taser or gun holster. Then, it backtracks to start storing footage from two minutes before that point.

A uniformed officer holds up a smartphone-style camera and holster that will be equipped to the center of an officer's chest.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway demonstrates BodyWorn body cam equipment that will be used during an upcoming pilot program. CREDIT: DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Holloway says it doesn’t make sense to record and store every second a uniformed office is on duty. It's expensive  to store and time-consuming to sort through.

There are also concerns about getting personal information from residents and suspects that could later be publicized if someone makes a records request.

“What is the crucial moment? And when we talk to everybody, that crucial moment was when that officer pulled his or her weapon,” Holloway said.

“You want to know what happened. You want to know why that officer pulled that weapon. So that's what we want to capture."

Holloway said the pilot program will start as soon as custom uniforms designed to fit the body cams arrive – in April, by his estimates. He expects to give Mayor Rick Kriseman and city council members equipment recommendations and cost estimates by the end of the year.

BodyWorn cams will be used during the pilot, but that brand may not be the final recommendation. 

A smartphone-style camera with a plastic holster and black smart watch.
BodyWorn chest camera and wrist watch. CREDIT: DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Costs will include the cameras, specialized uniforms for about 575 officers, and people who can review and
redact camera footage for public records requests.

Holloway said past estimates were over a million dollars. It’s unclear how much equipment will cost initially versus annual reoccurring costs.

He said it’s taken so long to get to this point because the department has been researching manufacturers and storage options. This has drawn criticism from civil rights groups.

RELATED: Civil Rights Groups Renew Call For Police Body Cams In St. Petersburg

In 2018, Sevell Brown III, head of the National Christian League of Councils, accused Holloway of “procrastination,” saying the chief was attempting to “earn four PhD's in studying body cams.”

At that time, Holloway said he’d have recommendations for city officials by the end of the year, adding that the use of body cams was about “building trust.”

This week, Holloway reversed course: “This is not about trust. I can tell you that right now. It's all about being transparent that when an officers pulls his or her weapon that you can see what happened."

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department are now among the last of the area’s largest law enforcement departments that oppose the use of body cameras.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.
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