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City audit says Austin police could be better about keeping track of body camera footage

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 by Andrew Weber, KUT

The Austin Police Department is still working out the kinks in its body camera program, according to a new city audit.

The report released today by the city auditor’s office looked at footage from 151 body cam videos from Aug. 1, 2018, to Jan. 31, 2019 – a small sampling of all the videos recorded by officers. It found only a single video had been watched by a supervisor during that time and that officers didn’t always categorize the videos for record-keeping purposes.

Auditors highlighted a memo from patrol supervisors to APD executives that said quarterly reviews of videos from body cams and dashboard-mounted cameras were “redundant” and “never identified any officer wrongdoing.”

Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon told the city’s Audit and Finance Committee Tuesday that the audit reflects a blip of the overall scope of the camera program, which began formally in 2015, but rolled out on a larger scale to 1,900 cameras since October 2017.

Chacon said that gap in quarterly reviews during the audit was because the department had been conducting a revamp of its review policies writ large – one that included all the equipment used by police, including patrol vehicles and sidearms.

“We were incorporating all of that into one process,” he said. “So while we never explicitly told our folks to continue the audits, they took that to mean that we were in the process of redoing our audit process and to just hold off.”

Chacon said those 151 videos were part of a larger dataset of roughly 750,000 videos in the audit’s time frame – and 2 million videos as of April. The audit found 36 of the videos had footage that was obstructed, started or stopped recording too soon, or wasn’t correctly categorized.

As far as operating the cameras, the audit found officers in all 151 of the videos correctly placed the cameras on their uniforms, and 99 percent of the videos recorded audio for the duration of the recording, which Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said spoke to the department’s ability to adopt the technology quickly.

“The police department is not a software development company where technologies need to be, and can be expected to be, adapted at the snap of a finger,” Flannigan said, at the hearing this morning. “Obviously, there’s room for improvement here, and I know that you all are going to make that improvement.”

Overall, the report found around 15,000 videos each month were uploaded to APD’s evidence database without a category, and the “vast majority” of those were uploaded without case numbers.

After a recording, officers must enter a case’s information into an app on their department-issued phone to fully document the recording – something Chacon said doesn’t happen after every single recording. He said that’s largely because officers may not have time before responding to another call.

However, he said, those videos are retained indefinitely if officers don’t categorize a video. As for the incorrect case numbers, Chacon blamed that on human error, as officers may incorrectly transpose numbers when typing them in. He said the department has retooled its training to address both issues.

The report also found the department doesn’t have a system of keeping track of public records requests associated with the footage from the cameras – at least within the time frame of the audit. APD told the city it previously used a spreadsheet to keep track of them, but it no longer did and couldn’t find an effective way to track requests from the public.

In response to the review, Police Chief Brian Manley has agreed to identify a single point of contact to handle the department’s body cam program by next month, and APD will put together a work group to address issues by Aug. 1.

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This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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