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Police body camera bill loses its teeth

A South Florida lawmaker proposed legislation last month that would require every police officer in the state to wear a body camera while on duty. 

The cameras became central to the debate about law enforcement accountability following the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City.  

But they have been questioned by many policymakers and leaders in law enforcement because of concerns about costs, privacy and how they would be used in internal police investigations. 

In the first House committee workshop on the bill (H.B. 57) Tuesday, those same concerns were brought up -- and are leading sponsor Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, to dramatically change his proposal. 

There'll be no more requirement that every officer wear a camera, he said. 

"We all should have some type of accountability," Jones said. "I thought it was a great accountability tool on both sides, the citizens and the police officers." 

Instead of putting a camera on every officer in the state, the new bill will set guidelines for policies to be put in place by police departments that choose to implement cameras, such as the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, which will start training its officers next month and plans to have more than 300 deployed by the end of February. 

The issues that will likely remain hot topics as this moves through the legislature -- costs and privacy chief among them -- are questions the Pasco sheriff has already grappled with, said Maj. Mel Eakley, who has been intimately involved with the process. 

The biggest cost is data storage, which is problematic largely because no one's certain just how much memory would be needed, is being handled by obtaining unlimited server space. 

And privacy? Eakley said all interactions with the general public will be recorded unless it's in private property, the owner asks for cameras to be shut off and there isn't a clear crime being committed. The cameras are collecting evidence, he said. 

The Pasco policies are fluid, Eakley said, and he recommends that as the Legislature starts finalizing its rules for departments, it ought to look at what his department is doing. 

"We think that the things that we're trying to accomplish are probably a good start for the legislation," he said. "This is an evolving technology, and we think that our policy as it's written is a good start."