Police body camera policies differ

During a March 2013 news conference at the University of Central Florida, police released video recorded with an officer's body-mounted camera showing the search for a suspected gunman. On the shaky footage, officers holding weapons could be seen checking rooms inside the Tower 1 dormitory until they found the body of James Seevakumaran, who committed suicide before carrying out an attack on UCF students, according to investigators.

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Prior to that incident at UCF, very few Central Floridians had ever seen video recorded with police body cameras. In the two years since, about a dozen Central Florida law enforcement agencies have purchased the devices, which officers can wear on their chests, hats, and lapels. After clashes between citizens and police in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, civil rights organizations and police associations have urged other departments to invest in body cameras.

As more and more law enforcement officers begin wearing body cameras, police agencies have had to quickly devise new policies governing when the cameras must be used, how the video and audio is stored, and who can access the digital files.

"I think (body cameras) are something we really need out on the street to protect our officers and the public," said Capt. Sue Manney with the Orlando Police Department.

When OPD received its first 50 body cameras last year as part of a study being conducted by the University of South Florida, the department created a 3-page policy setting basic rules on camera usage. Now that chief John Mina has announced that OPD will be purchasing an additional 400 cameras, the department is finalizing a revised body camera policy that will provide officers with even more instructions.

"It's going to be a living, breathing document until we get it down to the correct form," said Manney.

Under OPD's current policy, officers are given some discretion on when to use the body cameras.

"Officers shall activate the (body-worn camera) whenever there is a potential for dealing with a suspect of a crime," states the policy. It adds that, "(the camera) may be activated whenever the officer feels its use would be beneficial to his/her police duties."

OPD's revised policy, which has not been finalized, will likely give officers similar flexibility.

"We're not going to dictate (when the cameras must be activated), but we did give them guidelines," said Manney. Currently those guidelines include traffic stops, suspicious person contacts, and calls for service.

Officers with the Daytona Beach Police Department have much less discretion. That agency's policy, which went into effect in April, mandates that officers turn on their cameras as soon as they are dispatched to certain calls, including homicides, burglaries, and domestic violence incidents. During more routine police activities, such as traffic stops, vehicle searches, and any contact with citizens, Daytona Beach police officers are required to turn on their cameras prior to exiting their vehicles.

"In summary, when exiting your vehicle to conduct any police service the camera will be activated," states the Daytona Beach policy. If an officer fails to do so, the policy requires the officer's supervisor to investigate the circumstances and submit a memo to the police chief explaining what action was taken.

Those supervisors understand an officer might not always have the opportunity to activate the camera.

"There are going to be times when an officer's safety is in jeopardy and they immediately resort to their training, which is to defend themselves," said Capt. Richard Cordeau with the West Melbourne Police Department.

When Cordeau's agency began using body cameras late last year, administrators turned to the International Association of Chiefs of Police for guidance on drafting their new policy. They also reviewed the policies of other Central Florida agencies currently using body cameras, including the Daytona Beach Police Department.

Like their counterparts in Daytona Beach, West Melbourne police officers are required to tell crime victims that a camera is present.

"At the first reasonable moment we notify the people they're being recorded," said Cordeau. "You have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home, therefore you may ask us to not turn it on."

Orlando police are not required to notify citizens that their cameras are recording, according to Capt. Manney, and officers are allowed to keep the camera on when they enter a private residence.

"Basically what our police legal adviser has said is, if a police officer can go inside someone's home, so can the camera."

However, like other agencies, OPD wants citizens to feel comfortable speaking with officers and sharing sensitive information.

"If the individual asks to have the body camera deactivated, we will, in fact, do that. But we will also say on the camera that it was deactivated at the request of the person," said Manney.

Many department policies mandate when officers are not allowed to use their cameras. In Orlando, police cannot record undercover officers or confidential informants. Sanford police officers are instructed not to record routine conversations with co-workers or capture footage in locker rooms or restrooms.

The Daytona Beach Police Department forbids body cameras from being used to document crime scenes where a death has occurred.

After officers upload their body camera footage to a computer or offsite server at the end of their shifts, policies dictate how administrators handle the digital files.

"Officers shall not edit, alter, erase, duplicate, copy, share, or otherwise distribute (recordings)" states the Eustis Police Department's policy. Eustis police officers who are involved in a shooting or are accused of wrongdoing may be prohibited from watching the video.

The Sanford Police Department's policy specifies that only the officer who recorded the video, the officer's supervisor, the chief, and the state attorney can review the footage. Requests from citizens to see the video are processed through the department's public information officer.

"The biggest challenge we have is the rights of privacy for the individuals who are on camera," said Manney, who recently attended a conference where police administrators were shown ways to edit the footage as required by law before being released. "They are helping us to learn how to redact some of the videos so it can be for public disclosure and not have anybody's rights violated."

A new Florida law, which goes into effect July 1, prohibits law enforcement agencies from releasing body camera footage to the public that is recorded inside a private home, a medical care facility, or any other place where a reasonable person would expect privacy.

That same law requires police departments to retain body camera footage for at least 90 days.

The Sanford Police Department's policy also requires the videos to be kept for a minimum of 90 days, or until all criminal, civil, or administrative cases have been closed and all appeals have been exhausted. In Daytona Beach, the policy mandates that footage be retained indefinitely if the case involves an unsolved kidnapping, an unsolved missing person, or a felony that could result in a life sentence or capital punishment.

Despite the policy changes that come with the use of new technology, many law enforcement agencies are embracing body cameras.

"It allows our officers to have the peace of mind that there's a recording of what occurred," said Cordeau. "And it allows us to have a neutral party there to view the incident for what it truly is."

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