The next time you interact with a sheriff’s deputy, be sure to smile.
Because you’ll be on camera, although not a candid one.
Earlier this month, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office began outfitting deputies with body worn cameras, often referred to as body cams, part of an ongoing trend by departments across the country to have officers record their encounters with members of the public.
“I think it’s a good idea, they’ll be nothing left to controversy,” said Sheriff A.J. Smith. “If there’s a video of an incident, it will be there. The public will be able to see it.”
In fact, a few months ago, just prior to the delivery of the 30 body cams to the sheriff’s office, Smith relied in part on body cam video taken by an Apalachicola police officer during a traffic stop where he was back-up to a sheriff’s deputy.
Smith shared the video, along with dispatch recordings, during a meeting in his office with several members of the African-American community, who had expressed concern over what happened when a black woman, in town for a wedding, was stopped by a deputy who had been informed by a dispatcher the car she was driving may have been stolen.
As it turned out, the dispatcher had erred, and the sheriff handed out disciplinary action to those involved. In addition, and importantly, the portions of the stop that the body cam video captured showed that both the woman and the deputy had conducted themselves in a respectful manner, under the circumstances.
“I think it (body cam video) can be good evidence for a court, for a jury and judges, and prosecutors can view it,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be the deputy’s word against somebody else’s.”
The department's preparation for enlisting the body cams began many months ago, when several officers and staffers attended a training workshop in Washington on how to use them properly.
Grant funding for the Axon brand cameras, which totals about $81,000 for the complete set-up, breaks down to about $800 for each camera unit, plus additional expenses for licenses, storage, docking station, signal units, insurance and other costs.
Ginger Coulter, the sheriff office’s finance director, said the department also has a $222,000 match out of the overall $303,000 project, but none of this match is additional money that has to paid out of the annual budget, since it is being met by applying the existing costs of current law enforcement personnel.
The grant funding comes out of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, and stems from a three-year $75 million project first announced by the Obama administration in May 2015, to outfit departments across the county.
"Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve," former Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at the time.
Funding by the Justice Department covered the purchase of body-worn cameras for local law enforcement, as well as money for training and technical assistance and for the development of evaluation tools to study best practices.
Smith said his department’s protocols call for deputies to turn on the body cams whenever they interact with the public.
He said the Axon technology is popular with many agencies nationwide who are outfitting their staff with body cams.
“It’s supposed to be easier, everything’s uploaded to the cloud. We don’t have to worry about storing it in our hard drives,” said Smith.