LAKEWAY, Texas (KXAN) – As body worn cameras gradually become the norm among law enforcement agencies, Austin Police have long sought a body camera system that turns on whenever an officer exits their patrol vehicle. It’s a quest to maximize public trust and accountability after several, high profile officer-involved shootings, senior staff say.
“We’re ready for the technology, our officers are ready for the technology, we’ve just been waiting for the technology to be ready for us,” says Austin Police Cmdr. Ely Reyes.
Now two smaller agencies in APD’s backyard are helping test exactly that kind of technology, KXAN has learned.
Police officers responding to calls in Lakeway and Buda, Texas no longer have to remember to press the button on a small, black plastic box mounted on their uniforms to trigger their body worn cameras.
Both departments use TASER International’s Axon body camera. In fact, Lakeway PD was the first police agency in Texas to implement the cameras more than three years ago, according to its chief. Todd Radford tells KXAN given that existing relationship it made sense for the medium-sized department of 33 officers to ‘beta test’ what’s dubbed auto-activation technology.
“We were excited about what (TASER) had brought to the table, what could activate these cameras remotely (and) how could this enhance officers’ ability to get good footage under high levels of stress,” Radford says.
Lakeway PD motorcycle Officer Trevor Mathis is mid-way through a 30-day trial run with the bluetooth-enabled camera. He showed KXAN Investigator Robert Maxwell how it works. The camera system’s ‘brain’ is a small remote electrical box with 8 ports mounted in a discreet place inside the police vehicle. Each port can then be wired to a vehicle’s lights, siren, brake system, airbag, dome light or doors. When those are used, a Bluetooth signal is sent to the camera to activate it. It remains on until the officer turns it off – up to 12 hours.
After turning on his motorcycle’s flashing lights Ofc. Mathis explained: “The camera (mounted on his shoulder) is going to beep (indicating it is recording). And I can hear my camera is now on and now we’re sitting here holding the conversation and I’m viewing you. Everything I see, my camera sees.”
TASER’s technology also shoots a 30-second long wireless signal to other AXON cameras within 30 feet, activating them, too.
A TASER spokesperson tells KXAN its final testing of its so-called auto activation testing is happening in Central Texas, along with departments in Florida and Arizona — all hot weather climates where sensitive wireless technology can fizzle.
Mathis says he has had no issues during numerous traffic stops during the first two weeks of a four-week testing period.
Ironically, the desire of Austin Police for auto activation technology actually prompted TASER to develop it, according to internal emails obtained by KXAN through an Open Records request.
“The two auto activation features available today are light bar (on the patrol vehicle) an TASER draw from the holster, wrote TASER sales representative Andrew Grayson in an Oct. 21, 2014 email to Reyes.
“Which trigger is critical to APD’s needs? Since you are on (sic) the only Major City requiring auto triggers now, we will prioritize development/ release for APD. Let me know and we’ll send it over to the dev (development) team ASAP!” wrote Grayson.
KXAN did not receive a record of Reyes’ response. However, earlier this year when TASER invited APD to fly officers to a company conference at its Arizona headquarters, APD declined other emails show.
Does APD know auto activation now exists?
KXAN asked Reyes if he knew Central Texas police agencies are now testing the kind of product they’re looking for. Reyes responded by email he expects to learn more about the latest bells and whistles for body worn cameras at a conference next week where a number of vendors would be present.
Austin’s in-car dashboard cameras already activate when lights or sirens are turned on — wireless mobile cameras are the next step.
“Having that body camera turn on when we do deploy them is a number one priority,” Cmdr Reyes says.
Austin Police Department wants to begin phasing in a body worn camera project for 1,400 patrol officers sometime next April, Reyes confirmed. The agency is waiting on city council members this summer to find about $2M in the city budget to get the project started. If there’s body cam money there, only then will APD make a final decision among more than a dozen vendors who have responded to a Request for Information that went out in late 2014. Here is APD’s review of each, obtained as part of an Open Records request.
KXAN also discovered Panasonic is coming out with its own auto activation camera, likely this month. We obtained Panasonic’s body cam product showing its version of the technology.
Government money available
We also checked on which local agencies have applied for federal Body Cam grant funding available through the Governor’s Office. So far Hays County is one of 12 law enforcement agencies statewide to have been approved for Justice Assistance Grants which give out money for various policing tools such as radios, in-car cameras and computers, servers, software, records management systems, a spokesman in the Governor’s Office tells KXAN.
Hays County’s Sheriff’s Office will receive 74 uniform-mounted cameras worth $67,000. The Sheriff’s Office is among 58 agencies around Texas who have applied for the federal money since last October. The Governor’s Office plan is to make $8 million available for distribution to local agencies based on priority recommendations from regional councils of government.
The state is providing its own $10 million fund to equip Texas officers with mobile cameras. It’s too early to know if Austin will apply for grant money but it will be the last major Texas city to implement police body cameras. Fort Worth led the way several years ago, with Dallas, Houston and San Antonio expected to launch their own programs this summer. Each has run extensive pilot projects.
As the technology improves and becomes more reliable, there is talk among police agencies of someday doing away with the in-car cameras and having body worn cams only. As well, some agencies see a benefit of using the same video collection software for all their needs – including for interviews conducted by detectives at the police station and linking it all to one server, either land or cloud-based.
Radford points out while they are excited about the future with body cameras, traditional police practices still apply if, for some reason the technology fails.
“Fundamentally just because there’s no footage doesn’t mean the incident didn’t happen…that our officers are not credible because we’ve been doing this professionally a long time without cameras,” he says.