Why does the Nation’s 11th Largest City Still Not Have Police Body Cameras?

By Matt Mackowiak

Would you be surprised to learn that the city of Austin does not have police body cameras?

That’s right, we don’t.

So despite the fact that the Austin Police Department and the City Council put out the request for proposal (RFP), made a near unanimous recommendation on the vendor, and approved the contract, weeks have passed and the city still does not have police body cameras.

How can this be true?

A frivolous lawsuit has brought execution of the contract to a screeching halt.

But let’s come back to that.

First, some background.

After a long public discussion and lengthy RFP process and field test, on June 23, 2016, the Austin City Council approved a contract with TASER (the winner of the RFP process and staff recommendation) to outfit the Austin Police Department with officer body cameras.

The RFP process was publicly protested by a competitor, Utility, on the basis that the process was not correctly adhered to by all companies. These vocal protests occurred before the council vote, during the council session and has continued since.

Utility filed a complaint with the city and the city responded that it found no legal or factual grounds to sustain any part of Utility’s protest, and that the TASER proposal met their required specifications.

TASER beat Utility and other competitors in all criteria outlined in the RFP bid score sheet except one, pricing.

On July 12, Utility filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin claiming that the bidding process was unfair and on July 18, a Travis County district just granted a temporary injunction again the contract to halt implementation of the awarded contract to TASER.

The issue is now held up in court.

Let’s review the cost of the contract.

The approved contract with TASER is valued at $12M.

A second $5M contract was awarded to AT&T for the purchase of iPhones as accessories for the TASER product. The TASER body cameras are not contingent or reliant on the second contract.

In January of 2015, the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division (CJD) announced a grant program for body-worn cameras. The City of Austin has qualified for a $750,000 grant. More information on the program can be found here.

On September 26, the Department of Justice announced an additional award program for 106 state, city, tribal and municipal law enforcement agencies to establish and enhance law enforcement body-worn camera program across the United States. The City of Austin qualified for one of the largest awards, $750,000.

Implementing the police body camera contract in Austin should be an urgent priority.

Our nation is facing nearly unprecedented civil unrest, racial tension, and lack of confidence in law enforcement. The least our communities can do is deploy body cameras on the street to create transparency and restore some level of trust between the community and law enforcement.

The city of Austin, a major metropolitan area with a diverse and rapidly expanding population, is not immune to police shootings or their consequences.

In recent incidents in our city, the community, law enforcement, judges, elected officials, families and victims would have benefitted greatly from the definitive transparency body cameras provide.

Austin is last major city in America that does not employ the use of body cameras to help protect the public and local police officers. What are we waiting on?

Can the city afford to sacrifice the transparency, clarity, and additional accountability body cameras will provide in the name of a frivolous lawsuit? What will it take for the city to find a path forward to implement the body cameras they already approved?

In light of an officer involved shooting in South Austin on Sunday, the Austin American-Statesman reported that, “Police said they have audio recordings of the incident but no video, and there were no witnesses to the shooting.” Police body cameras would have been invaluable here.

My review of Austin police officer involved shootings of black individuals finds eight such incidents since 2012.

How many more will needlessly occur without police body cameras?

Police body cameras protect citizens and the police, by providing visual evidence of what occurred, that can be used in the legal system and in the court of public opinion.

It protects good police officers and helps hold bad ones accountable.

The Mayor and the City Council need to find a way around the frivolous lawsuit that is currently halting police body cameras from being employed across our city. Utility has demonstrated in the past that when they lose, protest is the preferred path. The real losers are the citizens of Austin.

The Austin City Council can tap existing funds, seek summary judgment regarding the lawsuit, or they can find some other creative solution.

No one wants to imagine a Baltimore, Ferguson or Charlotte situation in Austin, without police body cameras providing honest video footage of what actually occurred.

We owe it to ourselves to get in front of this potential disaster.

Matt Mackowiak is syndicated columnist, an Austin-based Republican consultant, and a former Capitol Hill and Bush administration aide.