Patrol car video systems - hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth in the bay area - often conk out when they're needed most.
By MARCUS FRANKLIN
Published June 21, 2004
[Times photo: Lance A. Rothstein]
One of the Zephyrhills Police Department's two working cameras shows an arrest at a traffic stop.
ST. PETERSBURG - When two Pinellas sheriff's detectives fired 15 shots at a teenager after a chase in May, the cameras in the deputies' cruisers failed to record the deadly encounter.
One camera had been malfunctioning for months and the other briefly captured the teen, Marquell McCullough, as he drove, but then it stopped, sheriff's officials later said.
Even as deputies told investigators they fired because McCullough tried to hit them with his pickup truck, police statements that both cameras were inoperable during the shooting stoked suspicions among some residents. Prosecutors later ruled the shooting justified.
"A camera bolsters the believability of professional law enforcement, and in a climate that is already suspicious, why wouldn't an agency want something to bolster or support an officer's conduct?" said St. Petersburg lawyer Darryl Rouson, who also is president of the city's NAACP branch. "It's quite critical to have an operable camera on cruisers, both for the integrity of evidence and to show proper conduct."
In the past decade, Tampa Bay area police departments have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on patrol car video systems, mostly to prosecute drunken driving suspects but also to capture misconduct or discredit bogus abuse claims. But the cameras, which cost some departments as much as $4,000 apiece, have a troubling track record of breakdowns that sometimes last months.
Explanations for failures range from inevitable wear and tear from heat, debris and car vibrations to neglect and rarely enforced or nonexistent inspection policies, some police officials said.
After the May 2 shooting of McCullough, Pinellas sheriff's officials discovered that at least nine more of the agency's 46 cameras didn't work.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office has six video recorders for squad cars but only three are working, spokesman Kevin Doll said.
In Tampa, where police two years ago spent a $500,000 grant to buy and install nearly 150 cameras, an official described the cameras as "problematic."
Pinellas sheriff's Maj. Dennis E. Fowler, who is in charge of the patrol operations bureau, said he was shocked that more than 20 percent of his agency's cameras malfunctioned.
"When you have that many pieces of equipment that aren't working properly, it's something we need to deal with and address, and we are," Fowler said. "Public trust is the foundation of what we do."
* * *
In 2002, Tampa police installed 145 additional cameras in patrol cars with a $498,900 grant. Police use a total of 180 cameras to document DUI stops, pursuits and routine street patrols, officials said.
But a year after installing the cameras, the department, whose policy requires video inspections before each shift, had sent cameras in for repairs 54 times to just one of the companies it contracts with for maintenance, according to Jay Logue, vice president of Enforcement Electronics Service in Lakeland.
"They are problematic," said Tampa police spokesman Capt. Bob Guidara. "Breakdowns, unfortunately, are all too common."
They're also common among the Hillsborough sheriff's 26 car cameras. Among the problems: poor audio; washed-out pictures; cameras shutting off by themselves; and broken record buttons.
"I can't even tell you how many times they've been broken this year alone," said Hillsborough Sgt. Laura Regan, who supervises a DUI squad. "It's been so much."
Warranties covered most of the repairs for Tampa and Hillsborough, said Logue, whose company also repairs Hillsborough's equipment.
Hillsborough's VHS cameras have frustrated prosecutors in DUI cases. Just last week, Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Frances Perrone said the video quality in a DUI-related case was so poor jurors could barely make out the defendant, who eventually made a plea agreement.
Perrone attributed the shoddy picture quality to the fact that Hillsborough deputies record repeatedly on the same tapes.
"At times it doesn't capture everything we'd like it to capture," said Perrone, supervisor of the misdemeanor prosecutors, who handle the majority of DUI-related cases. "Low volume. It fades out. If we had a better quality video, we'd have that much more evidence to put forth to jurors."
Jim Heffington, who handles video evidence for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, recalled an "extreme" example: "I had one tape where literally what I was watching was not what I was hearing. Previously recorded audio was bleeding through. It's not the norm, but it happens."
Some departments, such as the Pinellas Sheriff's Office and Tampa and Clearwater police, have written policies for handling videos. In Pinellas, recordings of an "evidentiary nature" must be submitted, marked and maintained according to policy. Everything else must be stored for at least seven days.
In Clearwater, tapes capturing "noncriminal events" must be stored for at least 30 days. In Tampa and St. Petersburg, it's 90 days. Some agencies, such as the Pasco and Hillsborough sheriff's offices, have no such policies.
Cameras in police cruisers came into vogue in the 1990s, on the heels of some highly publicized amateur videos of police brutality, including the 1991 Rodney King beating in California. Locally, the cameras have helped document a number of misconduct or brutality allegations.
In 1991, the Citrus sheriff fired a corporal for using excessive force during an arrest and for telling another deputy to "get rid of" a videotape that captured the entire incident.
In 2002, a Winter Haven officer quit and gave up his police certification after the video camera in his cruiser recorded him striking a motorist with a baton during a traffic stop.
"It adds a layer of protection for the citizens," Zephyrhills police Capt. Randy Belasic said.
* * *
The future of cruiser cameras seems to be digital. Digital cameras eliminate the need for storing bulky tapes, provide significantly more memory and allow faster access to images, experts said.
Regan, of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, is preparing a grant application to buy 10 $6,200 digital cameras, among other equipment. Most Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies, however, still use VHS systems, which include a camera mounted on the dashboard or windshield, and a VCR in the trunk. There are two microphones: one worn by the officer, the other inside the cruiser. These days, a VHS system runs as low as $1,500, police said.
In general, the system turns on automatically after a cruiser's lights and sirens are activated.
"We have had some problems with systems . . . but we have (tried) to rectify these problems," Regan said, noting that vendors provide fast service.
But not all departments have problems. Plant City has 44 squad cars equipped with cameras, 14 of them digital. Maintenance is paramount, Capt. John Borders said. Departments can't allow problems to accumulate, he said.
Shift supervisors randomly inspect all vehicles, including video equipment, every week, he said.
"We love them," Borders said. "When we get complaints on traffic stops, all we have to do is review the tape and the evidence is there," he said, adding that complaints declined when the department began buying cameras in 1999.
The Zephyrhills Police Department lacks such an inspection system for its seven cameras. Initially, officials there seemed unsure how many were in use. Some officers "grumbled" when the cameras, manufactured by Saerim, a Korean company, arrived in 2001, Belasic said. The cameras' audio was problematic from the start. But other parts gradually fell into disrepair, mostly for lack of a strict inspection system. Problems were ignored, he said.
"It could go a week or two before somebody reported it," Belasic said. "It just became too much of a pain to backtrack and find out who's responsible for doing what."
The department is trying to increase accountability - such as assigning responsibility for vehicles to officers - as it searches for grant money to repair or replace its broken cameras.
In Pinellas, deputies are responsible for ensuring the video equipment in the car they're assigned to is working, or reporting it if it's not, according to a 2002 written policy.
Fowler, the Pinellas major, said he didn't know exactly how long the cameras in the McCullough shooting had been malfunctioning. Fowler also said he didn't know whether the detectives' supervisors knew of the breakdowns before the shooting. An examination by the Sheriff's Office shooting review board will answer those and other questions, he said.
Three weeks after the shooting, Fowler ordered all cameras inspected. Officials pulled nine for repair or replacement. The Sheriff's Office has sent the two from the shooting scene to the manufacturers for "diagnosis."
Fowler said that additional training, policy revisions or "an additional level of inspection" might be forthcoming. "Having two cameras at the scene of that shooting, both of which apparently malfunctioned - I want to make sure we're not placed in that situation again," he said.
- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Marcus Franklin can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8488.