APD set to roll out body cameras as advocacy group asks for more oversight

Austin Police Department will deploy these Axon body cameras on its officers. (KXAN Photo)
Austin Police Department will deploy these Axon body cameras on its officers. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department is set to roll out body cameras for its officers after much back-and-forth regarding what options the agency wanted in its purchase.

In a memo, the city states it is in the process of deploying 1,700 body-worn cameras — one for every officer.

APD on Friday announced it had purchased — with state and federal grants — the first 736 cameras. The first 198 devices will be rolled out to east Austin officers starting next week, followed by 234 to downtown officers in November and 228 to officers working in south Austin in December. The purchase also includes extra cameras to use as replacements.

The goal is to have all remaining cameras bought and deployed by next summer.

“We’re glad that they’re here and we’re going to get them out as quick as we can,” Interim Police Chief Brian Manley told KXAN in an interview after the news conference Friday. “We just needed to start the program somewhere and that’s why we developed the plan based on the number of officers that work out of each substation.”

The department showed off the cameras, made by the company Axos, and said they’re capable of turning on automatically when a patrol car door opens. Manley said part of the years-long delay in buying body-worn cameras was to find technology that would allow the capability.

The department also needs to build out new infrastructure to support the cameras and the ability to upload data automatically to cloud storage.

“Each of our substations will have a room just like this, where it’s key-carded access in and out,” Commander Brent Depre explained, giving reporters a tour of the body camera room, where docks to charge the devices and upload video lined the wall.

“Maybe the new body cameras will help to some extent, but there are still a number of concerns,” Joao Connolly, an organizer for the advocacy group Austin Justice Coalition, said.

Looking at data that organization collected, members found a few hot spots for police use of force and high police interaction. “They are all on the east side,” Connolly said.

He believes it’s possible there’s a correlation between those numbers and where the first set of cameras is being deployed, but he’s still skeptical of the move and what it will mean for people who live in east Austin.

“I would say the cameras in and of themselves aren’t enough,” he said. “I would accept it as a step toward transparency if there were proper mechanisms for community oversight.”

APD’s seven-page body camera policy sets a lot of rules and standards for officers — including how and when the devices should and shouldn’t be used, how long video is stored, who has access to the videos, and how public information requests for the videos are handled. Connolly and the others with the Austin Justice Coalition say the rules don’t go far enough.

“It’s hard to celebrate just yet,” he said.

While the package includes an iPod Touch with each body camera, APD and the Communications and Technology Management Department determined that it was best to spend extra money for an upgrade to outfit each officer with an iPhone instead. The city says the iPhone is capable of consolidating and replacing the hardware used to manage some or all of the technologies that an officer already has on them, such as the electronic ticket writer, evidence camera and MiFi device.

The city says by using the iPhone, it’ll save them $560,000 over the next five years by consolidating several devices into one. If the smartphone is stolen, the department can disable the device.

The current budget allows for the purchase and operation of 909 iPhones — at a cost of $49.99 per month. The funding for the remaining 791 smart phones will be requested during the FY19 budget process.

In 2016, KXAN reported more than 100 of the 1,700 sworn APD officers currently have city-issued phones. Monthly stipends totaling $10,000 are given to 300 sergeants, detectives and officers. As of Oct. 1, 2017, the department has 1,898 active sworn officers — 688 of whom are listed as patrol officers.

The Austin Police Department is one of the last major city police departments in the state of Texas to deploy body cameras on its officers.

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