As the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office continues to lay the groundwork for its midyear rollout of body cameras, the police union has signaled it wants a say in how that happens.

 

The union says it is not opposed to body cameras, but that it wants a chance to iron out any policy differences with the Sheriff’s Office.

It’s unclear whether it would be entilted to that chance in Florida. The state agency that settles union disputes has yet to weigh in on whether police body camera programs would trigger mandatory union negotiations, as they have in other states.

Thus, the union’s pension talks with the city provide a convenient opportunity to toggle the issue. To that end, Fraternal Order of Police 530 President Steve Zona said that he wants the body camera program on the table for the current round of collective bargaining with the city.

The pivot was seen as a shrewd one by Gary E. Lippman, a former attorney for the Palm Beach County police union who has written extensively about body cameras. Lippman said Zona’s request to include the cameras in a broader set of talks was “wise and well advised,” because police unions have a narrow window of time to file a grievance after mandatory policy changes.

“A record has now been generated that the union wanted to talk about cameras, and, short of doing that, they might have been found to have waived that right at a later date,” Lippman said.

Zona said that he has no specific concerns with the program. The Sheriff’s Office is still working out the details of how it would be implemented.

“I won’t know until I see the policy,” Zona said.

Elsewhere in the country, discussions over body cameras between police unions and law enforcement agencies have gone relatively smoothly. Oklahoma City provides some precedent for a police union halting a pilot body camera program, but the issues were resolved in a matter of months.

Pilot program on track

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams’ vision for the body camera program is ambitious and extensive.

The Sheriff’s Office is set to begin testing of three different camera systems as part of a pilot program that would begin in late spring or early summer and last from four to six months.

After that, cameras would be mandatory for all uniformed officers, at least below the rank of lieutenant, Williams said.

The pilot program costs taxpayers nothing, as the camera vendors provide the technology free during the trial stage, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The full-scale program is estimated to cost between $3 million and $5 million per year.

Williams said he has been discussing the program with the union and even with community activists critical of the Sheriff’s Office. He said he believes the cameras will go a long way toward achieving better transparency.

“The cameras will capture the entire interaction with a citizen, from the catalyst onward,” Williams said. “We expect to see a dramatic drop in complaints.”

Diallo Sekou, a grassroots activist who met with Williams, said it was a productive discussion. Sekou, who runs an advocacy group called The Kemetic Empire, said he’s optimistic about the program.

“It looks good,” Sekou said. “We know that when people are being filmed — whether it’s on the other side or we’re on camera — things tend to be a little more straight.”

One example of an area of concern for officers is the question of when they would be required to turn the cameras on and off, Williams said. The Sheriff’s Office will provide its next official update on the program on Feb. 7 in a presentation to a City Council committee.

Body cams OK’d in Oklahoma

The Oklahoma City Police Department recently redeployed its body cameras after a pilot program was halted by the local police union .

Some issues of contention arose during negotiations with the police department, including concerns over how often supervisors could review body camera footage without a complaint prompting them to do so, and when to turn the cameras on and off.

Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Mark Nelson said that there were “common-sense” solutions for each issue.

One example he gave was that the police department intially wanted officers to record every response to all high-priority calls in their entirety — from the time the call was received to the conclusion of the incident.

That then led to some officers getting in trouble for traffic violations in the course of responding to urgent calls for service.

“Like Jacksonville, Oklahoma City is extremely spread out landwise,” Nelson said. “These were guys that were getting mildly in trouble for speeding, for going through an intersection.”

The compromise ended up being that officers had to turn their cameras on only after they exited their vehicles.

That particular sticking point underscores how debates over body cameras between law enforcement agencies and police unions are often more technical in nature.

Even when unions and departments are in favor of the ideas behind the policies, it can be tricky to navigate the level of oversight that creates transparency while still allowing police officers to go about their business without fear of being scrutinized for minor offenses.

“The cameras were never meant to be a tool to watch officers’ every single movement, action and word,” Nelson said. “That’s never how they were sold to the public.”

Ben Conarck: (904) 359-4103