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Austin Police studying body cameras for officers

Wednesday, November 26, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

The Austin Police Department has plans for its officers to eventually wear body cameras, though Police Chief Art Acevedo says the technology isn’t up to speed yet.

“We’re confident that within the next 12 months, the industry will rise to the challenge and we’ll have a system that will be seamless in terms of its operations,” Acevedo told the Monitor on Tuesday. “Especially now when there’s a public outcry for this type of technology, the industry is moving very quickly.”

Acevedo said APD is working pragmatically toward a solution. “You’re better off being methodical and making sure that you do your due diligence so when you do deploy a system, it doesn’t have any of the problems that occur when you deploy a technology that hasn’t been thoroughly vetted and tested.”

This approach, Acevedo added, “at the end of the day will save a lot of taxpayer dollars.”

Though APD posted a request for information in November that could reveal new technologies, Police Technology Commander Ely Reyes said that staff will not know until the request window closes on Dec. 10 and they begin to sort through submissions.

Acevedo said that the next step could be to ask the city for the necessary funding for a pilot program, put out a request for proposals and follow the bidding process.

Reyes said that APD tested body cameras in 2011 and 2012, specifically for downtown bicycle and pedestrian officers who weren’t covered by the digital camera systems in all police cars and motorcycles. “At that time, the technology was still very new,” he said.

Acevedo said that the systems APD tested at the time did not have the desired battery life or functionality.

Some officers have opted to voluntarily purchase their own body cameras. The APD policy manual states that these are not required, but that officers who choose to use them must follow specific policies, which include notifying their supervisors if they have a camera, subjecting any recordings to review by APD and following property and evidence collection procedures.

Reyes said it is too soon to determine how much a pilot project could cost, but mentioned that the New York Police Department recently spent $60,000 to launch a pilot program involving 60 of its 35,000 officers.

According to the city website, APD currently has 1,700 sworn officers.

Public Safety Commissioner Rebecca Ruth Webber, who also serves on the Citizens Review Panel, said that implementing the technology is going to be “quite expensive for the city” but is, in her opinion, the right thing to do.

“In the vast majority of cases,” Webber said, “it’s going to exonerate officers, so I think that it’s a good thing for our public servants, and I think it’s a good thing for the citizens of Austin just to have more faith in what happens.”

Webber added that, though she hopes it doesn’t take too much longer, she’s glad that city staff are “taking their time to make sure that they’ve done their due diligence and are choosing the right technology and making sure that they have the right processes in place.”

Human Rights Commission Chair Sara Clark said that, although she could not speak for the entire commission, she “would be pleased to learn that the department is considering implementing body camera technology for its officers.”

In the request for information, APD says it is interested in “information regarding system capabilities as they apply to capturing video and audio, data storage, usability features, security features, environmental durability, battery, connectivity, accessories, warranties, implementation, and any other additional features available.”

Acevedo pointed to data storage as a particularly important component, saying it can be extremely expensive to maintain the data that the cameras will be recording.

As far as logistics, Acevedo said, the APD wants a body camera system that will integrate with the current in-car camera system that is automatically triggered by certain actions, such as an officer turning on a car’s siren, so that officers will be able to focus on immediate needs in a critical situation.

In addition, Acevedo said, the APD wants “a system where the officer plays minimal to no role in the transfer of the data” similar to the current in-car system that automatically and wirelessly transfers data to its servers.

Features like this can help to maintain public faith in the system, which Acevedo said is a critical concern. “I would rather not have a camera during a critical incident than have a camera that’s not on during a critical incident,” he said, “because that really hurts in terms of public trust and support, and it’s just not a good outcome.”

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