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Champion Stands with Citizens on Demand for BWCs, Others Stick to the Script

HERNANDO – The debate over whether body-worn cameras (BWCs) should be used by law enforcement is no longer the question; rather, the focus now is on how quickly an agency can implement them. At least that's how the vast majority of citizens and law enforcement officers we spoke to feel about the issue. But there are a few very stubborn chief law enforcement officers who still vehemently oppose the use of BWCs, and citizens are starting to ask, "What do you have to hide?"

It's been proven time and time again that BWCs are beneficial to those who wear them, but opponents will suggest that advocates for BWCs are somehow anti-law enforcement. That couldn't be farther from the truth, but in politics, the accusation goes a long way. If that was the case, then why have more than half of Florida's 232 law enforcement agencies adopted BWCs?

In the Tampa Bay Area, Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sumter, and numerous local agencies have all begun using body cameras, and they say it's been a total success. For example, BWCs reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits, saving the taxpayer millions each year. Law enforcement officers are safer on the road because a criminal is less likely to commit a violent crime against them when they know they are on camera. In the courtroom, BWC footage aids in expediting prosecutions and alleviating caseloads.

With so many obvious benefits for both the citizen and law enforcement officer, how does Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis continue to justify his "no body camera" policy? Nienhuis alleges that he doesn't have money in the budget to afford BWCs, despite the Hernando Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) increasing and approving his budget every year. Nienhuis complains that the deputy ratio is too low and that he would prefer to add deputies rather than spend money protecting the officers he already has. Nienhuis makes that same plea every budget season, yet there never seems to be a substantial increase in the number of deputies. When that excuse doesn't satisfy the critic's concerns, he reverts to it being a privacy issue for both the community and his deputies. Nienhuis says he doesn't want the media releasing video footage of people in their homes, but Marsey's Law already protects victims of crime and other statutes allow the agency to have discretion in what they release to the public. And finally, when those reasons don't satisfy the masses, he turns to what he says is a much better solution of having dashcams in patrol cars. The problem with dashcams is that they only give you a wide-angle view of what's happening in front of the patrol car. You don't see what's going on inside a vehicle. What if a deputy shoots a driver, claiming the suspect reached for a gun? How do you prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt without BWCs? What if a foot chase ensues? Once the deputy and suspect are out of view, anything that happens is left to the testimony of the deputy and suspect. Who do you think will have the upper hand in front of a jury? On the flip side, what happens if a deputy steps away from his patrol car and is ambushed by a homicidal cop-hater? The shooter gets away and it takes months to try and positively identify the suspect.

On Tuesday, the BOCC held its bi-weekly meeting in Brookville where Spring Hill resident Rob Christenson raised the issue of transparency during citizen comments. Christenson complained that Nienhuis is doing everything he can to prevent the public from knowing what's going on inside the Sheriff's Office. Christenson says, "I see citations are up over 100%, that means he should have money in his budget to be able to afford some body cameras." Christenson goes on to say, "The encryption of the radios is alarming. I'm going to use cop logic on them, 'If you have nothing to hide what do you fear with the public eye on them?' Now we are going blind and deaf to holding them accountable.'" Christenson tells the board that they control the purse strings and that "It would be nice to see some stonewalling to make sure they (body cameras) are in the budget." Christenson goes on to praise the good deputies in Hernando County but says the BOCC needs to hold the leadership accountable.

In response to Christenson's comments, Commissioner Steve Champion said, "I think it's time to body cameras in Hernando County, and I've said this before." While the other Commissioners walk in lockstep with Nienhuis and never question his motivations, Champion stood alone and spoke on behalf of his constituents. Champion pushed back on Nienhuis's assertion that BWCs are not in the budget stating, "I've talked to high-ranking people in Pasco, and they didn't pay anything for the cameras." Champion continues, "We can't dictate to the Sheriff, the Sheriff is elected, he's a Constitutional Officer, he makes those decisions. I think it's time for the Governor to step in – I think it's a state thing – it needs to be mandated."

Chairman John Allocco responded to Champion stating, "I'd support the Sheriff if he wants them." Allocco goes on to glorify Nienhuis's position that dashcams are the best option.

Commissioner Narverud followed with a bizarre allegation that body camera footage would somehow be altered for nefarious purposes by using artificial intelligence. It's unclear if Narverud believes law enforcement would alter the video or if it would be used by the media to fit a particular narrative.

Commissioner Brian Hawkins claimed to be ignorant of the pros and cons of BWCs and stated, "If [he] decides this would be a good thing for the community, then obviously we would support it." Hawkins says he needs to be educated on BWCs despite the issue being discussed numerous times during BOCC meetings. Even a body camera expert with the Tampa Police Department conducted an in-depth presentation for Commissioners last year.

Commissioner Jerry Campbell continued with what many say is a "scripted response" drafted by Nienhuis himself to help Commissioners defend his position. Despite being provided information with options time and time again, Campbell continues to reverberate Nienhuis's talking points that it would take a massive staff and millions of dollars to run the BWC program.

The community doesn't seem to be buying the worn-out, debunked excuses anymore and neither is Joe Puglia, a veteran New York Police Officer and long-time United Airlines pilot. Puglia says, "In today's policing, body cameras are an absolute must. The community you police need to have faith in those sworn to protect them. If you're training your officers properly and operating within policy and the law, you will never have a problem." Speaking to Nienhuis directly Puglia says, "As the CEO of the agency, you have to come out and get behind that officer and support them, even in the face of political doom. Some CEOs, well, they just find that difficult."

With Sheriff's Nienhuis expediting the encryption of radio traffic, refusing to implement body cameras, hiding and altering documents from the public, refusing to give ample notice of press conferences, denying or delaying access to public records, deleting critical commentary and banning hundreds of citizens from their social media, citizens are going be completely left in the dark. Without transparency in government, how can be accountability?

Just a few years ago, The Hernando County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) employed two Public Information Officers (PIOs). Denise Moloney and Michael Terry handled all inquiries by the media and would quickly respond by phone or email. Now, the PIO Department is comprised of five full-time and four part-time employees, totaling $277,488 per year in salaries. The total estimated cost to outfit and operate a body camera system in Hernando County is approximately $300,000 per year. With that understanding, the citizens of Hernando County are starting to question if Nienhuis truly has their best interest at heart or if protecting his political career is paramount.


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