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Austin police to deploy first body cameras to downtown officers

When body cameras are rolled out next year, Austin police will deploy the recording technology to downtown cops, who have used force more often than any other officers in the city, according to records obtained by the American-Statesman.

In the national conversation about police violence, many have taken a view that body cameras could become something of a panacea for stemming deadly encounters. The idea is based on the theory that if police and the public know they are being recorded, both will be less likely to act hostile. The use of body cameras is widely supported in Austin, and the Austin City Council made their purchase a priority.

By the end of next summer, police expect to roll out about 500 body cameras with the emphasis on officers working downtown, including those on the Sixth Street detail.

The density of revelers on Sixth Street, the prevalence of alcohol and a highly visible police force mean that the officers first equipped with mandatory body cameras will be involved in encounters that are more likely to turn violent.

“It’s the obvious choice,” Austin police union President Kenneth Casaday said, noting that police welcome the use of the technology as long as it does not invade an officer’s privacy. A state law is already in place that aims to protect the privacy of both officers and the public.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said the department will focus on downtown officers who are on foot, bicycle or horseback. In crafting the $3 million program, police leadership designated these cops to be first because they do not operate patrol cars, which are already equipped with dashboard cameras.

But unlike dashboard cameras, the body cameras will have to be activated by police themselves during law enforcement action. Patrol car dashboard cameras begin recording as soon as an officer either activates the car’s emergency lights or opens the door.

It introduces a human element into their use that Acevedo said he would prefer to avoid.

“The less human interaction the better,” Acevedo said during a recent community meeting about body cameras.

That human element is what vocal police critic Antonio Buehler says police will exploit to suppress any videos that show police using excessive force or committing criminal acts.

“This is not some special unicorn reform that is going to change the way police leadership approaches criminal misconduct,” Buehler said. “They’re going to be more helpful to bad cops than citizens. When it shows a cop committing a crime, it will be suppressed, or shown it was malfunctioning, and we’ll just never know about it.”

Buehler commonly videotapes police downtown along with other members of the Peaceful Streets police watchdog group he founded. He believes many officers there are overly aggressive.

“If you believe the fairy tale that body cameras will increase accountability with police, it should definitely be in the downtown area because that is where you see the most aggressive police,” Buehler said.

The downtown sector, which encompasses the Sixth Street bar district, is by far the smallest police sector in the city at 2.15 square miles. However, police use force against people there more than twice as often as any other sector. Since 2010, police working downtown have filed more than 4,500 use of force reports.

In comparison, the next-largest number of use of force reports came from the East Austin sector, where police filed about 2,100 use of force reports in an area 16 times larger than the downtown sector.

Buehler said it will be easy for downtown officers to come up with excuses for why they did not turn on their body cameras during police incidents.

As part of body camera use policy, Austin police will discipline officers who do not turn on their body cameras. The department will fire an officer who does not turn on the camera in an incident in which deadly force is applied, Acevedo said. Lesser punishments could occur depending on the circumstances and the officer’s work history, he said.

Last week, Austin police publicly sent out a formal request for vendor’s proposals to meet the department’s needs, including what kind of cameras they would supply and the costs of outfitting officers with the technology. Police want to equip more than a quarter of the force with the recording technology at a cost of about $3 million.

The bulk of that cost will be for data storage, police said.

Among more than 70 specifications, not all of which are required for the winning bidder, the requests seek:

  • Data encryption to prevent outside access to video.
  • A system that prevents officers from editing or erasing videos.
  • Ability to record in low light.
  • Ability to review video before it is uploaded from a device.

Bids are due Jan. 15.

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