Sheriff Nienhuis Defies Calls for Transparency, Chooses Not to Protect Deputies and Community with Body Cams
Last updated 9/23/2022 at 9:02pm
BROOKSVILLE – The Hernando Board of County Commissioners held a budget meeting on Tuesday, outlining every nickel and dime the county expects to spend, collect, or save during fiscal year 2022-2023.
Like most counties, the largest piece of the budget pie goes to public safety. Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis's proposed budget is $69,575,299. That's a 10.1% or $6,390,441 higher than last year. Nienhuis attributes the increase to explosive growth, inflation, and high gas prices, but even before the economy began to collapse, Nienhuis was requesting increases nearly every year.
The use of Body Worn Cameras (BWCs) by law enforcement officers is growing exponentially across the country. More than half of Florida's 232 law enforcement agencies have adopted body cams and that number is quickly growing. In the Tampa Bay Area, Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sumter, and numerous local agencies have all begun using body cameras.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco lauds great success with his program, which has been in place for over 6-years. Nocco says he's seen a drastic decrease in false allegations and saved the county millions in frivolous lawsuits. Nocco recently expanded his program to include Child Protective Services, after one of the agents was caught lying about visiting families during investigations.
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis has always opposed the use of body cams for various reasons. During several interviews over the last five years, R News Reporter Tom Lemons asked Nienhuis why he refused to adopt a BWC program. Until this year, Nienhuis said it was a matter of "privacy for domestic violence victims." Nienhuis explained that "due to Florida's broad public records law, anyone could request video and expose the identities of victims." But that isn't exactly true.
Marsy's Law, which was enacted in 2019, prevents the disclosure of crime victim's identities by law enforcement agencies in Florida. Before Marsy's Law, a law enforcement agency still had discretion on what could be released to the public. In most cases, it would have required a subpoena to gain records that were being withheld by an agency. Today, it's just policy and the only time those records can be released is when a court requires them for evidence.
On Tuesday, Lemons joined BWC expert and local law enforcement officer Chris Stockton in presenting information on how Nienhuis could easily implement BWCs. Lemons played a short video, highlighting various dramatic incidents where body cams were used as evidence. Click to watch video
The first shows the shooting of a bank robbery suspect who attempted to steal a patrol car after a pursuit in Brooksville. Thanks to video, the Sheriff's Office was able to pinpoint serious safety concerns with a few of the deputies who were literally shooting at each other across the patrol car. They were given additional training to correct those issues. Without that video, those errors could have led to someone being shot or killed in future incidents.
The second clip is that of a sexual assault suspect who was taken down by detectives in the Trillium subdivision a few years ago. Officials claim the man attempted to pull a gun on the deputies, resulting in the suspect being shot multiple times. The family reached out Lemons because they questioned what actually happened inside the vehicle, but because HCSO does not use BWCs, the case was ruled justified by the FDLE without further investigation.
The third clip shows the arrest of a murder suspect in Pasco County, where deputies apprehended the suspect with the use of K-9. Body camera video will be critical evidence in that trial.
The fourth clip shows a simple trespassing complaint turned violent, after the suspect attacked the deputy for simply asking him to leave for the night. He was tazed and taken into custody. The actions in this case will prevent allegations of excessive force because BWC footage shows exactly what transpired.
The fifth case is out of South Carolina, where a woman was issued a ticket for speeding. The Trooper conducted himself appropriately and with respect, but the woman claimed the Trooper was racist and that he threatened her. BWC footage proved she was lying, and the case was closed without further action.
The sixth incident occurred just a few weeks ago in Hernando County, where the suspect responsible for a string of violent crimes was shot and killed by Pasco and Hernando County Sheriff's Deputies. Thanks to BWC footage provided by Pasco County, the entire incident was captured on video and will be used by FDLE for their investigation. Hernando County only provided doorbell video from a nearby residence.
The seventh video clip shows an Illinois Police Officer working a simple traffic stop, when a man pulled up next to him, jumped out of the car, and attempted to attack him with a hatchet. The officer's quick action probably saved his life, as he eliminated the threat without second guessing his decision. If the officer had been killed or injured, the suspect may have gotten away. Without BWC footage investigators would not have been able to identify the suspect and he could have gone on to injure other members of the community.
The last case is out of Jackson County Florida, where a sworn deputy was charged with numerous felonies after planting drugs on innocent victims. If not for BWC video, every suspect he arrested would have certainly paid the price for something they didn't do. Some of them were already convicted felons who were rehabilitated. Their punishments would certainly have been much harsher if convicted on new crimes.
Law enforcement officer Chris Stockton, who serves as the BWC director for a major bay-area law enforcement agency received the approval of his agency to conduct a non-opinionated presentation that only highlights the success of their program and associated costs. He was also asked not to mention the agency that he worked for.
During his presentation, Stockton explained that the Department of Justice has BWC grant program where an agency can provide their specifics and they will receive an estimated cost. Stockton estimates that the cost of a five-year BWC program with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office would be approximately $600,000, not including the federal grant funding. With 50% of the cost being covered by federal grants, HCSO would only spend $60,000 per year to provide transparency and protection to its deputies and the community. HCSO receives more than twice that amount in revenue from the Detention Center, School District, and Court Security. Essentially, there would be no reallocation of the Sheriff's budget and no additional cost to the taxpayer.
In closing, Stockton praised the Sheriff's Office and reiterated that he was only providing information to help the agency acquire BWCs.
In prior years, Sheriff Nienhuis always presented the agency's budget himself, but for some reason, he decided not to attend Tuesday's meeting; instead, he sent one of his top brass, Maj. Phil Lakin to speak on his behalf.
Fully prepared with graphs and charts, Lakin took to the podium in defense of the Sheriff's anti-transparency policy.
In a strange opening statement, Lakin compared Sheriff Nienhuis to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. Referring to Grady Judd's decision not to use body cams with his agency.
Judd is one of the most outspoken and popular Sheriffs in the country. In past interviews, Judd has been known to encourage the use of deadly force against anyone who breaks into a Polk County residence. In stark contrast, Nienhuis rarely makes public statements in support protecting property or using firearms in any capacity.
To compare Nienhuis to Judd's opposition of body cams is also factually incorrect. During Tuesday's presentation, Lakin said the Sheriff's Office just can't afford the cost of the program and that they would rather have additional officers over body cams. Judd says he opposes body cams to protect the privacy of the community. Judd told The Ledger, "Even good people who get frustrated and have a stressful moment act and do things they shouldn't, and they certainly don't want it to be public record. If I have body cameras, the whole world is going to see them." But if Judd or any Sheriff was that concerned about the privacy of someone who does something they "shouldn't" then why post their mugshots on jail websites and publicly humiliate them on their agency's social media pages?
It should be noted that although Judd doesn't have BWCs in his agency, Auburndale, Bartow, Davenport, Haines City, Lake Alfred, Lake Hamilton, Lakeland and Winter Haven, all located within Polk County, have outfitted their officers with BWCs.
Knowing that Stockton did not want the name of his agency mentioned during his presentation, Lakin took the opportunity to take a jab at Stockton and stated, "I would like to address Officer Stockton's well-intentioned presentation. I happen to realize this thousand-member department he's referring to - I happen to know is the City of XXXX." (R News is not going to announce the agency Mr. Stockton works for in this article).
Lakin went on to state that the number of officers per thousand is lower in Hernando County than other cities, but even Commissioner Steve Champion interrupted Lakin to question the types of crime in a major metropolitan city versus a suburban to rural county like Hernando.
Lakin tried equating the use of patrol car dash cams to the use of body cams. "Currently we have 100 dash cams employed with our deputies. The majority of encounters we have with citizens are recorded during traffic stops," says Lakin. But according to the latest Department of Justice study, 18.7% of Americans had contact with law enforcement in their homes. Just 10.3% of Americans were contacted by law enforcement in a vehicle as a driver or passenger.
It should also be noted that HCSO adopted a drone program in 2019, which has been extremely successful in apprehending suspects, locating missing persons, and assisting with search and rescue missions. So, if the agency is accepting of new technology, like dash cams and drone cams, what is preventing Nienhuis from implementing body cams?
In 2018, the Police Executive Research Forum provided a cost-benefit analysis on the use of body cams around the country. Here are a few bullet points listed in their report:
• More than 85% of agencies with BWCs would recommend them to other police agencies.
• Importantly, we found that the most important reason given for adopting BWCs, by over 9 in 10 agencies, was to promote accountability, transparency, and legitimacy. This objective, which demonstrates a strong desire among agencies to build trust and foster relationships with their communities, is laudable.
I asked several Hernando County Deputies if they would be for or against the use of body cams but none of them wanted to go on the record, out of fear for repercussion from their command. Some of them said it was simply a personal privacy issue. "I don't want the camera on every time I go to the bathroom," said one deputy. What he may not understand is that the cameras are only activated during a call to service. Another deputy said they were concerned about using profanity on a video. She said HCSO has a policy of not using profanity. But experts say that's a matter of policy that could easily be changed to make their deputies feel comfortable in tense situations.
Despite overwhelming evidence that BWCs provide protection for law enforcement and citizens alike, and offers transparency and accountability with government, it is apparent that Sheriff Al Nienhuis will never implement BWCs with his agency. He just does not see the value in upholding the Constitution, with respect to transparency, or an individual's civil rights in cases of a questionable arrest.
Law Enforcement Officers are human beings. They make mistakes, just like everyone else. It's when they abuse their power that it becomes dangerous. The only way to prevent an officer from committing an illegal act or hiding a mistake, and at the same time, protect them from false claims, is to document every interaction with the community on video.
The longer Nienhuis refuses the implement body cams, the more it seems that he has something to hide. Politics comes first with Nienhuis, that much is already clear.
There was one time that Sheriff Nienhuis used body cams during an arrest – and only one time. That was when this reporter exposed his illicit activity with a local non-profit. Following those reports, I was subjected to numerous false arrest attempts, which led to the loss of my business, my freedoms, and my rights. My documentary Behind the Gate provides an in-depth look into what a rogue Sheriff will do to a principled journalist if [he] gets too close to the truth.
When will Sheriff Nienhuis accept that you can't put a price on someone's Constitutional or Civil Rights? How many incidents will be swept under the rug because there is absolutely no accountability? How many EEOC complaints will be filed by deputies who have been harassed or wrongfully terminated? How many lawsuits will be settled because they didn't have video evidence to dismiss them?
Mr. Nienhuis, you've run out of excuses...