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Contract for Austin police body cameras faces backlash

As the Austin City Council gears up Thursday to vote on whether to spend $17 million on body cameras from Taser International, another vendor has filed a protest over the process Austin police followed to choose the company, the American-Statesman has learned.

Utility Associates, a Decatur, Ga.-based company, sent a lengthy protest letter to the city of Austin in late May in response to media reports about the contract and the unexpected addition of a $5 million contract to buy 1,700 iPhones, which police say would streamline the process of uploading videos and adding metadata and geolocations.

Utility, the second-place bidder, was asking for $9.6 million to contract its Android-based platform to the city. Taser beat out Utility in all criteria but price, according to a city of Austin bid score sheet.

The city responded to several of the company’s complaints regarding the additional $5 million contract by stating that it had no response because the iPhone contract was not a part of the police department’s original request for vendor proposals.

The response also states the city found no legal or factual grounds to sustain any of Utility’s protests, adding that Taser’s proposal met their required specifications.

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Utility CEO Robert McKeeman told the American-Statesman he believes Taser had the inside track and that Austin police tailored the contract process for Taser to win.

“Our feeling is this was always going to be a Taser win,” McKeeman said.

Austin police officials declined to comment citing the city’s policy to not discuss pending contracts.

Multiple council members have expressed issues with the costs of the contracts. Its approval has been delayed for weeks. The contract’s proposed length — five years with optional extensions — is too long for Austin Police Department’s first foray into outfitting most of its officers with cameras, Council Member Don Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman, a proponent of body cameras, said he will try to either postpone the contract’s approval or to scrap the entire process during Thursday’s meeting.

“I think it is a very credible challenge,” Zimmerman said of Utility’s protest. “Either the (request for proposals) was defective or the process APD used was defective. These are substantial objections that have merit.”

RELATED: Why Austin NAACP president says it’s time for Austin officers to wear cameras

Austin police said they discovered the benefits of pairing an iPhone with Taser’s Axon body camera during a two-week test. In a response to Utility’s protest, city of Austin purchasing officer James Scarboro wrote that the Austin Police Department also decided to seek an iPhone contract after officers also discovered the usefulness of several other iPhone applications, a memo to McKeeman said.

Zimmerman called that explanation “embarrassing,” and Utility’s CEO said that the response was “disingenuous.”

“I’m sorry but I’m just going to call BS that somehow during their two-week trial officers just figured this out on their own,” McKeeman said. “Taser has advertised (their iPhone body camera app) for a year. So I think it is disingenuous for them to say that.”

RELATED: Cops, camera-wielding civilian watchdogs clash

Others who don’t think the contract should be approved include local activist Debbie Russell, who said the price tag could drive up the cost per body camera to $10,135.

“It’s atrocious just on its face if you look at what they’re charging us versus other cities,” Russell said.

Austin Justice Coalition co-founder Fatima Mann said Austin police should also explore storing body camera data in-house instead of with Taser. Data storage makes up the bulk of costs associated with body cameras.

“We are a tech hub,” Mann said. “Why not own our own data storage?”

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