After adding a controversial mute function to cop body worn cameras earlier this year, Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor recently told city council in a memo that the function cannot be tracked by the camera provider.
The mute function makes it easier for police to silence audio out in the field, which has caused controversy around the country during highly sensitive situations, including a police shooting and illegal detention of a suspect. TPD also added a sleep function, which makes it easier for police to turn off all functions of the camera.
Because the functions have obscured police transparency on several occasions nationally, many police departments, including St. Petersburg Police, have opted not to use it.
Last April, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reported on the introduction of the mute function. After the report, TPD was asked by council to give a report back on whether the body camera provider, Axon, could track the use of the mute function by officers.
O'Connor told CL that she made the decision to use the functions, after the Police Benevolent Association asked for them. On Nov. 18, she sent city council an update.
"Since August, the Tampa Police Department has been working with Axon regarding the tracking of a body-worn camera's mute feature," O'Connor wrote in the memo. "Currently, Axon's software does not have this functionality. Axon frequently upgrades their software, and they realize that several customers have inquired about this functionality."
O'Connor continued, saying that since TPD's last appearance in front of council earlier this year, the department has reached out to Axon on multiple occasions to get updates on a timeline for the implementation of mute and sleep tracking.
"Our account executive has assured TPD that we will be included in these discussions as they relate to tracking the mute mode of the body-worn camera," O'Connor wrote. "Axon has not provided a timeframe for when such functionality may be available in the future."
She said that TPD conducts regular quality assurance audits of many different things, including random reviews of body-worn camera video.
"If at any time the department feels that the mute feature is being misused or abused by officers, discipline can be administered," O'Connor wrote.
The subject was scheduled to be discussed at tomorrow's city council meeting, but it might now be removed since the memo explains that Axon cannot currently track the function.
City councilwoman Lynn Hurtak told CL that she read the memo, and that it's a good thing that multiple cities, including Tampa, are asking for the mute function to be tracked.
"I'm hoping that the fact that the company said other cities are also looking into this and have questions about it is a good sign," Hurtak said. "And you know, with a company that listens to its clients, I think we'll end up that we'll end up with the feature hopefully sooner rather than later."
The use of the mute function on body cameras has a troubled history.
In 2018, when Sacramento police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, the mute function was used immediately after an officer involved shooting while officers were discussing the situation.
According to NBC News, the incident, "opened up a new front in the national debate over body cameras: officers' ability to turn off the microphone on the device."
A 2018 investigation by 12 News KPNX questioned the Mesa Police Department's use of the mute function, showing that it was used by an officer when he pulled over a city councilman who was driving drunk, and the councilman and his wife tried to argue their way out of the scenario. While speaking with his superior, the officer used the mute function three times.
The 12 News team spoke with Dr. William Terrill, an expert on police culture at Arizona State University.
"If you're muting it for certain reasons then it's a concern of why that would be the case and it raises suspicions from a public viewpoint," Terrill said. "It's hard to say why Axon would incorporate that as a feature."
In November of last year, a federal lawsuit was opened against a Baton Rouge, Louisiana officer who was accused of muting his bodycam before spewing profanity and illegally detaining a woman, causing injuries to her.
When asked in April if she thought the controversies around the country were a cause for concern, O'Connor said, "I don't really want to speak for policy decisions that other agencies make. I think every agency has to examine the function of the cameras and how it can best accommodate them."
She also argued that the mute function helps officers quickly silence their cameras when they are improperly triggered by sirens and other noises. She also said that the sleep function makes it easier for officers to turn off their cameras while using the restroom. She added that the sleep function would make it easier for an officer to turn the camera back on quickly if there were a crime occurring at a place where the officer was using the bathroom.
When asked if there was ever a situation like this that occurred at TPD which led O'Connor to make the decision to implement the features, she told CL, "I'm not 100% certain on that right now," but added that she did a "very lengthy examination" into the changes before making them.