Outrage over the killing of black men by white officers has embroiled the nation in demonstrations over the past few weeks, sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. Among the reforms called for by protestors and policymakers are mandatory body cameras for law enforcement. Federal legislation is even moving on the matter.
Whether it be accountability for cops or criminals, Sheriff Bob Johnson says he understands the benefit of body cameras for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office. He said he wants them, long before video of Floyd’s death resulted in a cop being prosecuted for homicide.
“We would love to have body cameras. It also makes the offenders act a little better,” Johnson said. “The officers’ behavior improves, and the offenders improve their behavior because they don’t want that video played in front of a jury.”
In January, Johnson planned to seek county funds to get them on the street, first reported in the pages of this paper. It would cost roughly $580,000 annually he said.
Then COVID-19 happened. Within a few short weeks, the budgetary future of the county became murky as spending on things like gas and retail plummeted. Millions were out of a job as businesses closed, and Santa Rosa County’s economy was hit hard, despite relatively low community spread of the virus. Local building giants voiced concerns that they may be seeing a slowdown, meaning nearly every piece of the county budget could see reduced revenue.
Now, Johnson has taken the camera’s off the table.
Of the $3.3 million requested increase to his budget, none is planned for body cameras.
“This year it is not going to happen because the budget is down so much for the county,” Johnson said. “My budget this year is going up just for things that I can’t control. Health insurance, medical in the jail, retirement—all these different things, they are not negotiable.”
Other cost increases Johnson pointed to are replacement patrol vehicles and step raises for all employees.
“We feel we need the minimum raise just to stay competitive” with neighboring departments he said.
According to Johnson, the individual devices pinned to the uniform of officers in the field are relatively cheap. The problem is in housing what they capture. Video recorded by the cameras would be public record, like arrest reports. With roughly 400 sworn officers roaming the streets of the county in varying shift covering every hour of every day, the video accumulates.
So, there is a cost for storage capacity.
And public records also fall under limitations. For example, video footage identifying a juvenile victim or the victim of a sexual crime would be exempt, at least in part, from public records laws. Johnson estimates two full time staff would be needed to handle video record management in compliance with the law.
He said the cost is too high with an uncertain budget level for next year and lower than expected revenues this year. Johnson said that may change next budget cycle.
In the end, the county commission decides which budget requests are funded or not. Commissioner Dave Piech represents the Navarre area, and he said the issue is priorities.
“For me personally, it would be a high priority given the public mentality out there right now,” Piech said of the cameras. “It is an initiative that I would be willing to negotiate within the budget constraints.”
He pointed out that it can be easy for video to be taken out of context or edited for social media to fit a narrative, but public record video is more straight forward.
Commissioner Lane Lynchard said he defers to Johnson’s judgement regarding law enforcement issues, but he said if Johnson requested the cameras, he would be willing to look at it.
“Ultimately it is the sheriffs call on his needs and where his budgetary resources need to be allocated,” Lynchard said. “Everyone is going to have to look at priorities in every year but especially in this situation.”