Council approves $17 million contracts for Austin police body cameras

The Austin City Council has approved a pair of controversial contracts totaling about $17 million to equip police officers with body cameras.

The two votes came Thursday evening, after an hour of sometimes testy public testimony and council debate challenging the capabilities of the body camera system recommended by staffers and whether the contracts had been properly awarded.

The council approved purchasing the $12 million body camera system from Taser International with nine votes, with District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman casting the lone no vote and District 1 Council Member Ora Houston abstaining.

The second vote — to purchase $5 million in cellphones and service from AT&T — passed by a narrower margin, with just seven votes. Houston, Zimmerman and District 7’s Leslie Pool voted no, citing concerns about the cost of the overall proposal. District 8’s Ellen Troxclair abstained.

The first 500 body cameras will go to downtown officers who patrol Sixth Street, police in West Campus and officers who work in East Austin. In the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 500 more cameras will be purchased to outfit all patrol officers. The final cameras will go to remaining officers, including some detectives, police said.

The council’s votes Thursday night came after weeks of delays and mounting concerns from some council members about the costs.

While the two contracts were technically separate from each other, city staff said the cellphone purchase would provide the body camera system with extra capabilities. That contention lay at the center of a dispute that played out at City Hall this week, as a rival bidder claimed the cellphone contract was the city’s backdoor attempt to fix a glaring shortcoming in the system it had chosen.

“They (Taser) do not meet all of the requirements,” said Ted Davis, the president of Utility Associates, which also contended for the body camera contract and described the system recommended by staff as “woefully deficient.”

Austin Police Department officials defended the system and asked the council to approve it.

“The Taser body product was better, even without the phone,” Austin police Cmdr. Ely Reyes said.

Several residents asked the council to delay the vote.

“We all want body cameras,” said Debbie Russell. But, she said, “the (request for proposals) process has been flawed.”

“Taser seems to have won through acclamation; I didn’t see a real process here,” said Andrew Donoho with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for privacy online.

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