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Sarasota police adding body cameras to photographic arsenal

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SARASOTA, Fla. — Police have long used cameras while on the job, but now local law enforcement is looking to add a new body-mounted unit to their photographic arsenal. It's the latest technology in the fight against crime, and Sarasota Police will have them soon.

"What the camera will do is actually allow people to see the facts of the case and see it from he perspective of the police officer," says Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino.

Chief DiPino says her department is launching a year-long pilot program to test out 24 body cameras, and she’s hoping to get more than just a POV version of the show “Cops.”

According to DiPino, the recordings could reduce police injuries and complaints filed against officers, along with some overtime costs associated with evidence gathering.

"The theory is it will modify the police officer’s behavior because they know they are being recorded,” She says. “But it will also modify the behavior of the individuals, because as soon as they see they are being videoed and audio-taped, it may calm them down and maybe make people acted differently."

But others, like Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman, are looking at the fallout from the police-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and asking how the body camera would prevent similar incidents from happening locally.

"In the shooting in Ferguson, … the police officer is saying, ‘well this man tried to steal my gun,’ [and] the witnesses on the street are saying, ‘no, the man had his hands up when he was shot,’” Chapman says. “We have two different stories."

Chapman says the body-mounted cameras would help eliminate situations like the conflicting accounts of the shooting that has caused unrest in the Missouri city.

"This is a reliable way to see what really happened and to avoid the he-said she-said," said Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman.

Former law enforcement officer and current private investigator John Virgili agrees.

"It’s a great idea,” he says. “From the officers I've worked with, I think the officers would prefer to have a camera on their body to record what's going on, because then that way they have some evidence. They have proof of what happened."

Not everyone is happy with the move, however, with some worrying about privacy issues. To that point, DiPino says residents are already getting used to being caught on tape in everyday situations.

"The citizens might as well know that there are cameras watching them right now,” Chief DiPino says. “Restaurants have cameras, red lights have cameras …”

During a recent test period, the Police Chief said it worked like a charm.

"We already had one individual make a complaint, and the officer had a camera on and it was able to exonerate the officer and show the officer didn't use excessive force and so the person actually lied," said Chief Bernadette DiPino.

But the Chief says these cameras work both ways.

"My theory is that it will modify the police officer's behavior because they know they're being recorded and also modify the behavior of the individuals because as soon as they see they're being videotaped and audio taped, it may calm them down and maybe act differently," she said.

Sarasota City Commissioners unanimously approved the Sarasota Police Department's new pilot program.

Police will buy 24 cameras from the same company that makes Tasers. They'll get the $36,000 from a federal grant.  The Chief plans to train officer, hold 2-3 community meetings to educate the public, evaluate what they've learned and ideally equip officers with cameras in three months. If all goes well after a year, they'll buy more cameras.