Austin police body cam policy evolves with community input

(AP File Photo/Matt Rourke)
Body camera (AP File Photo/Matt Rourke)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – For the first time, Austin police executives publicized proposed amendments to a recently-drafted policy governing how officers will use body-worn cameras.

The new, fleshed-out ideas were revealed at Tuesday’s Public Safety Commission meeting and are the result of two, closed-door meetings between APD and stakeholders such as the ACLU of Texas and Austin Justice Coalition. They include new example-specific clarity on:

  •  Using the cameras for a law enforcement purpose only, not for surveillance work
  •  When an officer can turn a camera off their camera such as questioning a reluctant witness or a crime victim

The Commission backed up the proposed policy changes, approving a resolution that will now go to the Public Safety Committee of City Council. It will go to the committee ahead of full Council since the body cam issue is already on the committee’s ongoing agenda, city staff explained. The commission’s resolution calls for a review of the effectiveness of the policy after two years. APD will do its own internal review of the operability and functionality of the cameras.

Matt Simpson of the ACLU of Texas told commissioners the policy amendments are a start, but cited concerns over the when video can be released — if a family member of a police shooting victim, for example, would be able to view the video soon after the incident. Right now, the law allows video to be released only after the conclusion of internal and legal reviews.

The first 500 APD officers are due to add TASER Axon cameras to their uniforms by the end of September once the order is put in. Full council approved the $12.2 million purchase at its June 23 meeting. That sum does not include another $5 million for iPhones that officers can use to view the body cam video. This year’s portion is being paid for through the City’s IT Department.

Chief Brian Manley told commissioners at the special-called Public Safety Commission meeting Tuesday the iPhones were something APD has been looking at purchasing for more than a year, but the body cam program was an opportunity to provide ‘synergy’ between the two programs.

Asst. Chief over police technology Ely Reyes tells KXAN more and more officers are using their personal phones for police business such as returning calls to witnesses. So it made sense to give them the right tool for the job.

Reyes suggested the iPhones are a separate line item in the budget therefore were not included as part of the body camera RFP. One failed bidder, Utility, protested TASER’s winning bid, suggesting less expensive iTouches or Android devices could have been used to sync with officer body cameras. City staff last month ruled the company’s initial protest did not rise to further investigation.

Utility sent KXAN a second protest letter Tuesday addressed to city of Austin staff disputing some of the facts presented to Council on June 23. Company reps wrote of their intent to appeal the city of Austin’s original decision in State Court Tuesday, the letter showed.

Utility spokesman Ted Davis challenged TASER to a head-to-head competition to test the facial redaction technology of each system (related to the public release of video).

“Utility offered and would have far preferred to resolve this matter with a simple test of the systems… No for-profit company on the planet would spend $17 million and forgo substantive and competitive testing. Austin’s decision to move forward with Taser having no head-to-head evaluation is unconscionable to me on many levels,” David wrote in an email.

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