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Council approves major upgrade to video cameras in police units

Friday, August 6, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

Austin Police patrol units will soon be getting state-of-the-art digital video camera systems after Council members approved $15.5 million Thursday to upgrade the department’s antiquated VHS tape video cameras. The new technology has been on APD’s wish list for years, but was moved to a higher priority following the controversial killing of East Austin teenager Nathaniel Sanders by APD officer Leonardo Quintana during a scuffle last year.   


The Sanders’ family filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit as a result of the May 11, 2009 incident. Although the city has been cleared of wrongdoing and is no longer a defendant in the lawsuit, it is paying for Quintana’s representation and would pay any settlement or award against him should the family prevail.


A divided City Council, last week, rejected a $750,000 settlement with the Sanders family, after hearing from some community members during the meeting that approval of the settlement was crucial to rebuilding community trust.


The case is now set for November 2011 in federal court.


In the meantime, city officials are hoping to move forward in repairing the city’s relationship with the community, and Council Member Sheryl Cole saw Thursday’s vote for the equipment as one gesture.


“I think it’s important today to recognize that we are making an initial, first step or small deposit, on trying to move forward in a positive direction on the relationship between the police officers, and, in particular the minority community,” Cole said.


She noted that the purchase had the support of the Austin Police Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.


The Council approved $3.5 million for the video equipment and authorized other related spending. Commander Troy Gay told the Council that the new cameras, which will automatically turn on whenever officers open their car doors, would begin rolling out in January. They will be installed in 40 marked units at the city’s central East Austin substation. It will take until spring 2012 to fully equip the department’s 550 units and 75 motor units, Gay said.


The new cameras will record clear images, from as far as 1,000 feet away, APD Assistant Chief Patti Robinson told In Fact Daily. She said that while the second patrol car that arrived at the Sanders scene — it happened in the early morning hours — captured some VHS footage, the images were dark and grainy.


“What Sanders did is it brought to the forefront that our current VHS system is antiquated and that when you jump out it doesn’t automatically turn on,” Robinson said.


Gay told In Fact Daily that the Police Department had, for the past five years, submitted in its budget a request for the new technology, but it didn’t make it through the budget process. Robinson said that one of the issues was that the city didn’t have the facilities it needed to hold the infrastructure that goes with the system.


Council Member Randi Shade, during the meeting, emphasized that it would take time to get the new system up and running but policy changes have been made in the interim.


“It won’t be an instant fix that happens immediately,” she said. “I think it’s really important to note that, over the course of the last few months, the disciplinary matrix has changed so that it is now grounds for immediate termination when an officer intentionally does not turn on his camera.”

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