Body cam rollout delayed, case against city of Austin going to trial

TASER body camera (TASER website Photo)
TASER body camera (TASER website Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A temporary injunction has been granted in an ongoing dispute between Utility Associates and the city of Austin, further putting plans to outfit APD officers with body cams on hold.

Utility and TASER International were previously vying for a contract with the Austin Police Department, which was hoping to supply its officers with the body cams this fall.

Utility sued the city last month, claiming the bidding process was rigged against them. Austin police have been training on the new TASER Axon-style cameras ahead of a general roll out for downtown officers set for Sept. 30, police sources told KXAN’s Robert Maxwell.

The head of the company that lost the bid for Austin’s police body camera contract was in civil court Wednesday fighting for a reversal. The company accused the city and City Manager Marc Ott of a non-competitive bidding process. Utility says their bid was $3 million less than Taser’s bid and met all the technical requirements.

Attorneys for the city argue Utility has no case.

NAACP Austin President Nelson Linder says the latest pushback in implementing body cameras follows a series of delays from city council.

“I think some of our city council people, especially some who should be concerned about civil rights, have been, basically incompetent on this whole issue. They’re not informed properly, they didn’t follow the DOJ recommendations two years ago, and as a result, they’re misinformed and uninformed,” Linder said.

Others feel the time has been worthwhile. Necessary scrutiny to determine the best company ahead of a June council vote, where council members Don Zimmerman, Leslie Pool and Ora Houson voted against the TASER body cameras contract. It was in the June 23 meeting where council members learned body camera testing was not competitive testing between bidders, rather, city staff tested TASER against what was stated in the company’s offer.

Ultimately, the city went with TASER. But Linder says the amount of back and forth throughout the whole process has gotten away from the real issue.

“Let’s go ahead and get this system in place so we can make this city safer before there’s another major shooting in this city and we have no evidence to look at it,” Linder said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo says she too is concerned.

“I understand the frustration and share it. I’d like to see those deployed as soon as possible. I certainly had hoped we would see them out in use as early as August,” Tovo said. “It’s a situation where the police department is in favor, the community seems to be in large support and the council gave their affirmative vote as well, so it is frustrating that we have this delay.”

Last month, Utility spokesperson 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,” Davis wrote in an email.

The court has set a trial date of Nov. 28.

This delay puts Austin Police even further behind other law enforcement agencies. Since APD first started talking about using the new tool in 2011, several smaller departments have started testing out the cameras That includes officers in Burnet, Georgetown, Round Rock and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. And large police departments like Houston, San Antonio and Dallas have also started using the cameras on a select group of officers. But some want to see a faster rollout. For example under the Dallas Police Department’s contract, the department won’t have 1,000 body cameras until 2020 and it has a force of 3,500 officers.

In a response to the judge’s decision Friday, the city issued the following statement:

The Court’s ruling is disappointing. An exhaustive review process was conducted for this procurement. The purchase and contract were approved by City Council. This judicial decision directly impacts the authority of the City to appropriately exercise discretion over its purchases of critical hardware. City staff is working to determine the appropriate next steps.

 

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