council OK sought; recordings wouldn’t need officer activation
After controversial police shootings with no video footage, Austin police want to remove the job of flipping on patrol car cameras from officers — and give it to technology.
Next month, police officials will ask the City Council to approve $15.5 million for digital equipment they say will automatically start recording under several scenarios, including when officers open their patrol car doors.
The amount includes $5,300 for cameras and microphones in each of the department’s 550 patrol cars and about $12 million to create a wireless database to house the videos.
The money also includes $3,800 for cameras on each of the department’s 60 patrol motorcycles, which have not had them.
“This is an investment, not just in protecting the officers, but it is an investment in protecting the taxpayers and building trust with the com- munity,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said.
Austin police, who had declined to discuss details of the proposal until Friday, said that with the council’s approval, they will buy and install a first round of cameras in January. Police said they will place the first cameras in patrol cars in East Austin, where controversial shootings in recent years have occurred.
Officials hope to have cameras in each car citywide by the spring of 2012.
The equipment will be paid for with bonds
that do not require voter approval and are paid off with tax dollars.
In June 2009 — about a month after the fatal shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II — police officials began studying types of video technology other departments across the country use.
Then-senior officer Leonardo Quintana, who fatally shot Sanders, had not activated his camera and was suspended for 15 days for violating a departmental policy requiring officers to record stops. He has since been fired after a drunken driving arrest.
It was the second fatal shooting with no video evidence. In June 2005, officer Julie Schroeder shot Daniel Rocha during an incident in which she also had not activated her camera. Sgt. Don Doyle, who was on the scene, had not placed a tape in his camera.
The lack of footage in each shooting angered many residents and raised questions about how officers had handled the encounters.
Police officials have said in recent months that they wanted to find technology that would lower the chances of officer error. They also said it was becoming necessary to replace the current system, which uses increasingly outdated VHS tapes.
“We have old technology, and we are being pushed in a direction toward better technology,” said Cmdr. Troy Gay, who supervised the project.
Officials appointed a team of officers to review the type of digital equipment available, and they eventually settled on cameras made by Panasonic.
Officers this year visited police agencies that use the same systems in Louisville, Ky., and Montgomery County, Md.
The current system, which has been in place for about eight years, largely relies on officers’ actions to activate. The cameras start recording when officers manually turn them on or when officers activate overhead lights or sirens on their cars.
The new cameras would still
‘We must take some of the guesswork out of encounters between law enforcement and the community.’
Austin City Council member
be activated when officers flip their lights or siren on. However, they also would start recording when officers open their car doors, when cars top a certain speed (officials have not decided at what speed they want to program the cameras to activate) and when car sensors detect that the car has been involved in a crash.
Officers will be able to turn the cameras on manually from inside their cars or remotely from a box clipped to their uniforms.
Sgt. Wayne Vincent, president of the Austin police union, said officers support the camera purchase.
“No officer wants to make a mistake and not have a camera on when it should be on, so this will help alleviate a lot of that,” said Vincent, who noted that videos have cleared officers of bogus allegations.
The cameras will collect footage from the moment the camera is activated — and 30 seconds before that.
Police officials are still drafting a policy for when officers can manually turn their cameras off, such as when they leave their patrol cars for meal or bathroom breaks. Should they begin an unexpected official encounter while away from their cars, they would be required to manually start the cameras.
At the end of shifts, videos — stored on a card that is locked in a patrol car vault and inac- cessible to officers — would be downloaded to a database. Videos will be kept for 45 days, unless detectives preserve them longer as evidence in pending criminal cases.
To review officers’ actions, supervisors will be able to access videos on their computers instead of ordering tapes from the department’s library.
Officials said the systems would provide better quality audio and images — color pictures instead of the current black-and-white.
“They are pretty much movie quality,” Gay said. “They are clear and crisp — much clearer to hear the officer and the person they are making contact with.”
Officials also hope the technology will allow supervisors, from their offices, to watch live as officers make stops or work crime or accident scenes. That would allow them to determine whether more officers are needed, for instance.
Council Member Sheryl Cole said she plans to support the proposal at the council’s Aug. 5 meeting.
“We must take some of the guesswork out of encounters between law enforcement and the community,” she said. “This recent technology demonstrates our commitment to transparency, public safety and public trust.”