By March, all Austin patrol officers will be wearing body cameras, according to estimates by the Austin Police Department. Currently, 658 body cameras are in use; another 200 will be added.
“After that, we’ll be looking to [give them to other] units throughout the department,” said Cmdr. Brent Dupre, who heads the department’s technology unit.
Austin City Council approved $3 million in the 2016-2017 budget for the body cameras, but their purchase was held up by a lawsuit.
After the city awarded the contract to Axon (formerly Taser International), Utility Associates sued, claiming the city had unfairly favored Axon during the bidding process.
An appeals court threw out the suit in March 2017, allowing the city to begin its full rollout of the cameras in October.
According to Dupre, the body cameras are turned on just like dashboard cameras, which are triggered when an officer opens the door of a squad car.
“When an officer exits the vehicle, that trigger sends a ‘Bluetooth burst’ and will actually activate any camera that is within range,” he said. “Rest assured that if you’re sitting inside the car or stepping out of your door, it is going to activate that camera and any camera around it.”
If officers are on foot, they’ve been instructed to turn their cameras on when they become engaged in “police activity” or head to a call.
Dupre said the department was interested in having officers wear body cameras to provide more accountability and make the public feel more comfortable.
“These cameras just provide another lens, another focus, a view, of police work and what the Austin police officers do for the citizens of Austin every day,” he said.
An 18-month study of body camera usage by Washington, D.C., police found that officers equipped with body cameras used the same amount of force and received the same number of civilian complaints as officers not wearing cameras, according to The New York Times.
Chris Harris, a data analyst with Grassroots Leadership, told members of the city’s Public Safety Commission earlier this month that the public accountability the cameras can provide is limited.
“These actually are a conduit for pushing out the police perspective of a particular incident,” he said. “They’re worn on the police officer, they are the police’s eyes and ears in a particular situation. In that respect, they already are geared toward the officer perspective.”