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Cronk promises new body cam video policy soon

Friday, February 7, 2020 by Jo Clifton

What started out as a routine approval of an amendment for a large contract for police body cameras and Tasers turned into a discussion about the city’s new policy on releasing body cam footage at Thursday’s Council meeting.

With the exception of Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, Council members voted unanimously to approve the contract extension with Axon Enterprise Inc. for Tasers, body camera systems, and the software and support needed to operate and store videos for three years. The amendment will cost the city about $37.5 million for a total contract of more than $48 million.

There was little discussion about whether the city should have the body cameras, but Emily Gerrick, Chas Moore and Chris Harris came forward to say they had been waiting too long for the new policy.

Gerrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, played a body cam video showing an APD officer using a stun gun on a man on the ground with his hands in the air. The incident took place following a shooting in February 2018. The two police officers involved in that incident were indicted for official oppression and lying about the events depicted in the video.

Although both officers were found not guilty, Police Chief Brian Manley fired them and their dismissal is on appeal. Quentin Perkins, the man who was shocked with a stun gun in the incident, sued the city and the lawsuit was settled for $75,000 last fall.

Gerrick told Council, “I just want to urge you that if you’re going to approve this contract it’s really vital that body cam footage like this should be made publicly available very promptly after it happens, and automatically.”

Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, said it was important that the videos be released “in a timely manner so the public can see what’s going on and increase transparency so that we can increase trust within the police department.” Moore noted that the video came not from cameras worn by the two officers involved, but from a third officer, who sometimes blocked the view from the camera. He took no position on approval of the contract but asked Council to make sure they have appropriate policies in place for use of the cameras.

Harris, a member of the city’s Public Safety Commission, said the public was prevented from getting access to the Perkins video, and even after the criminal trial was done and the lawsuit settled he still had to file a public information request to get the video. He said the video was not released until last Friday, nearly two years after the incident and several months after the lawsuit was settled.

Council Member Greg Casar said the city was making an important investment in the cameras and that at the end of 2018, City Manager Spencer Cronk had promised a new policy on the release of such videos. He then asked whether Council would see that new policy by the end of March. He said he would like to see automatic release of videos in cases that are important to the public, and in cases where there is not automatic release, the city should have “an expeditious process” for releasing them.

Council Member Ann Kitchen added that it was important for city staff to move quickly and asked Cronk whether staff could provide Council with a briefing on the matter in the near future. Cronk responded that he was “comfortable” with the idea.

Garza asked why Council could not just wait another month so they would have the policy before approving the contract.

Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano responded that it would cost the city an additional $9 million, with pricing on the contract only good through Feb. 14. Staffers have been working with the company on the new contract since last September, he said.

Council Member Leslie Pool said she thought it was important that the contract go to the Public Safety Commission, but did not suggest that delaying it would be a good idea. A city spokesman later told the Austin Monitor that Council can direct items to go to commissions and commissions can request that items be put on their agendas, but there are no city code regulations on the matter.

After Council voted to approve the contract, Harris told the Monitor, “I think to the extent that our city has made a commitment to put body cams on every officer and ensuring that we’re going to have a policy very soon that’s going to ensure automatic release of the videos was the best-case scenario out of what could’ve happened today.”

Harris pointed out that the item started out on Council’s consent agenda and was going to be approved without any conversation or commitment about release of the videos.

“I think there is an ongoing debate about whether body cams are net positive from the community given how they’ve been implemented and used around the country. But if you don’t have automatic release of critical incident video, at a minimum, then the pendulum clearly swings to benefiting the police themselves over the community. So this is an opportunity for us to see the full promise of body cams,” as well as increase police accountability and transparency and reduce police misconduct, he concluded.

Video still from released APD video.

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