Top cops say ‘no’ to body cams in St. Johns County

With bills pending in the state Legislature that, if passed, would require certain police officers and sheriff’s deputies to start wearing body cameras, top law enforcement officials in St. Johns County are saying the devices are just not needed here.


State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, and Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, filed the identical bills earlier this year. Senate Bill 828 and House Bill 513 would require the cameras for all officers who regularly conduct traffic stops.

Body cameras have been a prime topic in recent years following a spate of officer-involved shootings across the country.

Supporters of the new bills, such as Sen. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat who is co-sponsoring the Senate bill, say the devices can help answer questions about confrontations between police and members of the public.

“Everybody does not trust police officers anymore,” Campbell told the News Service of Florida last week when the Senate bill was introduced. “We have to stop that. This is why this bill is so important, just to get back the trust between police officers and the communities.”

But there’s no lack of trust between the police and the residents of St. Augustine, according to the city’s chief of police, Barry Fox, who told The Record on Friday that he is not a fan of body cameras.

Fox cited concerns with privacy for residents whose interactions with police could be subject to public records requests, as well as storage and maintenance costs for such a program.

He said he also worries that those privacy concerns might have a chilling effect on people who call his department needing help. Such instances, Fox said, can involve drug and alcohol problems and threats of suicide rather than the traffic stops and disturbance arrests that people often associate with the police.

“I’m talking about the service side of the job,” he said.

Given those concerns, in the absence of public clamor for the adoption of cameras, Fox said he doesn’t see any need for them in the city.

“Only because my community hasn’t told me that I need body cameras on my officers,” he said.

That’s much the same tone that St. Augustine Beach Police Chief Robert Hardwick took last week when asked about the issue.

Hardwick, who sits on the Florida Police Chiefs Association legislative committee, said he has given a good deal of thought to the topic.

He stressed that he was only speaking for his agency and said, like Fox, that he just doesn’t think his community needs the cameras.

“I think our citizens will let us know,” he said.

Hardwick raised many of the concerns Fox expressed regarding public records laws and privacy, but he admitted there are some agencies where having them on officers is probably justified in spite of those concerns.

In communities where tensions run high between law enforcement and the residents, he said, the cameras can benefit the officer just as much as the residents.

Hardwick, whose department works closely with Fox’s and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, said he thinks “there is a different way of policing here in St. Johns County” that keeps most of that tension down.

“Our officers don’t get talked to like officers do in other parts of the country,” he said.

Even so, Hardwick said he thinks he will see a day when all law enforcement agencies end up with body cameras.

For now, though, he is studying how nearby agencies such as the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office grapple with putting their own programs in place.

“I am watching JSO very closely,” he said.

The agency to the north is expected to begin a pilot program for cameras later this year, and officials are in the process of gathering public feedback at a series of town hall forums.

Once details are hammered out and a policy on the devices is adopted, the Sheriff’s Office in Duval County will be only the second in neighboring counties to have done so.

Deputies in Flagler County currently wear cameras. In Putnam County, they do not. And newly elected Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels has said he will look into equipping his deputies with them.

But it won’t be happening at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, where Sheriff David Shoar has vowed not to put cameras on his deputies.

Compared to Fox and Hardwick, Shoar is the strongest critic of the devices. Armed with a four-page position paper and a number of graphic examples of the types of situations his deputies routinely deal with, Shoar left little doubt where he stands on the topic when asked.

“It’s just something that I have been against,” he said last week during a phone interview. “And I will always be against it.”

The idea of implementing cameras, he said – and his position paper says – started getting pushed after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer there.

The push for cameras, the paper says, is an “attempt by some (some media, some in the Federal executive branch of government and some activist groups like, ‘Black Lives Matter’) to create a false narrative that somehow police are bad and must be watched.”

“To the extent that my belief is accurate,” the paper says. “I find this narrative to be patently offensive.”

“No profession in America polices itself and holds itself accountable more than law enforcement and this can be empirically demonstrated,” it goes on. “Across America on a daily basis, law enforcement officers receive counselling, letters of reprimands, suspensions, transfers, demotions and terminations. And sadly they at times are incarcerated.”

During the phone interview, Shoar hit many of the same points Hardwick and Fox raised in their interviews.

Privacy, and the protection of the people his deputies go to help, was one concern.

“Do we really want to record American citizens at their worst moments?” he said. “Do we really want to record the father as he is cutting his 15-year-old daughter down from a rope in the closet and she just hung herself? That’s what we deal with everyday.”

If those images were to get recorded, he said, they could be sensationalized by media outlets, embarrass the families and even raise the possibility that the families could fall victim to what he calls “slippery entrepreneurs” like those who publish mugshots online and then request money from those arrested to have them taken down.

As far as recording officer-citizen encounters, even ones where force ends up being used, Shoar said he tells his deputies in the age of smartphones to assume they are being recorded all the time anyway.

Even then, he said, a camera, whether worn by an officer or held by a resident, cannot capture every part of what is often a very dynamic event.

A camera also won’t make a bad person act like a good person, he added.

That’s true of the general population, he said, where, for example, people continue to run red lights knowing there are traffic cameras operating in their communities.

And it’s true in law enforcement.

“Hell, they just caught one guy in Daytona stealing on his own body camera,” Shoar said of a recent news story where a Volusia County deputy was said to have been caught taking money from the wallet of a DUI suspect.

That’s very little upside, he said, when compared with what he sees as a lot of downside.

Given the price tag of a body camera program and other needs in the county such as treatment for people with mental health and drug issues, Shoar said that if the bills are signed into law he still wouldn’t move forward with a program because the law would amount to an “unfunded mandate.”

“We’ve got one drug treatment [facility] with what – 12 beds in it?” he said. “And we are going to spend $2 million on body camera technology?”