ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. – The Altamonte Springs Police Department was the first law enforcement agency in Central Florida to install dash-mounted car cameras almost three decades ago, according to Sgt. Rob Ruiz.
Ruiz said the old cameras were big and bulky, taking up much of the car and recorded on VHS when they were added in 1993.
The Altamonte Springs PD did it for one main reason, according to Ruiz: transparency.
"That's one of the best things about our agency," Ruiz said. "We've always been transparent."
Since then, camera and recording capability has become much, much smaller and "smart."
And the Altamonte Police Department has continued to invest in the latest technology to continue its commitment to remain transparent, Ruiz said.
Now, all 100 officers at the police department wear Axon body cameras that activate automatically as soon as the officer pulls out a Taser or gun.
Even when the Taser is holstered, the camera stays on to continue recording the encounter.
“You want it to be recorded,” Ruiz said. “Everything is a de-scalation. Even though you’re holstering your Taser, you still want to have that interaction on camera.”
When a gun is drawn from the holster, not only does the body camera activate, but so does the Bluetooth-connected in-car camera, any car cameras in the area and any body-cameras in the area.
"So you're getting a perspective of not only the officer who drew his weapon, but the officer that may be standing across the parking lot looking outside at the interaction of what's going on," Ruiz said. "So you're getting different views of everything."
If the back door of a patrol car is opened, the rear-facing camera automatically activates.
All cameras have a front flashing red light to make citizens aware they are being recorded.
The recording fail-safes are built into the cameras in case an officer forgets to activate the body camera or doesn't have time.
After every shift, every officer connects his or her camera to a docking station that downloads and stores all of the video recorded during that shift, according to public information officer Michelle Sosa.
“If there’s a complaint against an officer we can always look at it and fact check it and see whether it’s accurate or not,” Sosa said. “We file it through the process if we receive a complaint and go through internal affairs and they review it and go from there.”
Sosa said to date, the cameras have worked as expected and activated when they were supposed to. There have been no malfunctions and officers test their cameras before every shift, according to Sosa.
The Altamonte Police Department is also transparent about how it trains and the equipment that it uses, Sosa said, and invites citizens to see and learn about the department through its citizens police academy.
Brenda Farrier went through the citizens police academy several years ago and now volunteers at the police department. She first interacted with police officers when she needed their help in her neighborhood.
“There were two very young police officers and I was very impressed with how they handled the situation,” Farrier said. “As a Black person any time we get involved in a police situation, we have our guard up because bad things do happen to us sometimes. In that particular situation I was really, really impressed with how these gentlemen handled the situation.”
Farrier recommends the citizens police academy to anyone who may have concerns or questions about how the department operates or how officers interact with the community.
"And that class would really be a good way for anyone who may have apprehensions to come and get involved in the police department," Farrier said. "That's the only way we're going to get better as people get involved and learn."
The academy is taught once a year but was put on hold this year. The department plans to restart the academy in the spring of 2021 and will begin taking applications shortly. All applicants will be background-checked.
You can apply here.