Friday, June 10, 2016 by Cate Malek

Council delays purchase of police body cameras

Expressing concern that they were moving too fast, City Council members voted 7-1 to delay the purchase of body cameras for the Austin Police Department for two weeks.

At their meeting on June 9, Council members cited concerns with transparency when it came to who would be able to view footage from the cameras, as well as questions about the video technology and the vendor providing the cameras, Taser International, for the delay.

Only Council Member Pio Renteria opposed the decision, saying he wanted to wait even longer to purchase the cameras in order to give Council time to study the issue further.

“I think we’re really rushing into this,” he said.

Council has set aside more than $9 million over five years in order to purchase the cameras, which are meant to increase the accountability of Austin police officers in response to several officer-involved shootings over the past year.

Also on the agenda was a resolution to convene community meetings in order to discuss policy regarding the use of the cameras, which passed unanimously.

One of the main issues to be discussed at these meetings is who would be able to view the footage recorded by the body cameras. Community members are concerned with issues over privacy, as well as the public having access to video footage.

“What’s the point of having body cameras if you’re not able to see the footage?” asked Fatima Mann, a co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, at the meeting.

Council members hope that the two-week delay will allow them to clarify issues of transparency. They also expressed a need to further understand the costs behind the body cameras. In addition to funds for the body cameras, the Austin Police Department has also requested over $5 million for the purchase of smartphones and wireless phone services.

These phones would provide GPS information that would be embedded into the videos captured by the body cameras. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said that using the phones alongside the body cameras would save police officers time they would otherwise have to spend entering their location and other data manually.

But Council members questioned the added cost of the phones. They also raised concerns about the high cost of data storage for the footage that the cameras collect, which vendor Taser International quoted in its bid.

“I want to know if (Taser International) is like the HP of body cameras,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, referring to computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard’s practice of selling cheap printers but requiring customers to purchase high-priced ink in order to operate them. Pool wants to make sure that Taser International isn’t hiking the prices of the data storage that goes along with the purchase of the cameras.

Acevedo countered Council’s concerns, saying that the APD wants to use the cameras to capture more data than police departments in other cities and therefore needs unlimited data storage. He said the Taser International contract offers “very good bang for the buck.”

But Council still voted to take extra time to weigh its options, wanting to understand clearly the costs and policies involved with the cameras.

Council Member Greg Casar emphasized that the cameras are meant to build trust with the public and therefore Council’s decisions must be “crystal clear.”

“I don’t want the cameras to hurt us in the public view,” he said.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.

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