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Council approves $17M contract for police body cameras

Friday, June 24, 2016 by Cate Malek

Despite lingering questions about the technology involved, City Council passed two contracts adding up to over $17.2 million to purchase body cameras and iPhones for the Austin Police Department at its meeting on Thursday.

The purchase of the cameras has been the subject of debate since March. Community activists have raised ongoing concerns over the cost of the cameras as well as issues of privacy and police accountability. But although Council members debated delaying the purchase until next month to address these concerns, they ultimately decided to approve the purchase.

“The community expects us, at this point, to move forward,” said Mayor Steve Adler.

The cameras were purchased from Taser International, which has contracts with 30 cities across the country, according to director Andrew Grayson. Taser International will provide 1,700 cameras over four years. But community members questioned whether it was the right company to provide the technology.

One major issue under discussion was whether the technology purchased is capable of redacting videos in a timely manner. Videos recorded by police body cameras will need to have some faces blurred to protect the privacy of citizens captured in the footage. But questions remain over the amount of time and manpower this process will take and if another camera system could do the redaction more efficiently.

Another key concern is the $5 million spent on iPhones, which were purchased in addition to the $12.2 million camera technology. The phones are meant to provide GPS coordinates and other metadata when used along with the body cameras. Some community members were concerned about whether the iPhones had been added onto the original camera purchase in order to correct a shortcoming in the technology.

Other questions raised in the meeting involved how much discretion the officers would have regarding when they could shut off the cameras and how quickly the police department would be able to respond to public requests for footage captured by the cameras.

Resident Zenobia Joseph pointed out that it already takes the APD 40 to 60 days to respond to public records requests.

“How is the public supposed to believe that they will be transparent in responding to video requests?” she asked.

Many of these issues over accountability and privacy will be addressed in a series of community meetings, which are meant to guide city policy over how the cameras are to be used. The meetings will continue for the next six months. Residents asked Council to ensure that the cameras purchased will be able to support future policy recommendations.

“We are all anxious that officers have cameras,” said community member Kathy Mitchell. “But let’s make sure that the technology matches the vision that we have for what the policy is going to be six months from now.”

Council members considered delaying the camera purchase until August for more time to test the Taser International system.

Council Member Greg Casar said that while “he wanted body cameras on the street a year ago,” he had some concerns over the redaction issue.

Council Member Don Zimmerman was the most vocally opposed, arguing that the camera technology being purchased didn’t match the city’s requirements and that he wanted the city to test out other company’s systems as well.

But Council was ultimately concerned about waiting too long to purchase the cameras and decided to move forward with the contract. The final vote on the cameras was 9-1-1, with Zimmerman opposed and Council Member Ora Houston abstaining. The final vote on the iPhones was 7-3-1, with Council members Leslie Pool, Houston and Zimmerman opposed and Council Member Ellen Troxclair abstaining.

“There is no perfect system out there,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

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