APD to update car camera system

Aziza Musa

The Austin Police Department will be the first law enforcement agency in the nation to use door triggers to activate an updated dashboard camera system in patrol cars and motorcycles.

Public Safety Commission chairman Michael Lauderdale said the developments are an overall step in the right direction, but he questioned the officers’ ability to deactivate the dash-cam triggers at their own discretion.

“I think [keeping the cameras on] is critically important because in the long run, it protects the officer,” he said. “But what I think is more important is that it provides information to us, as citizens. It lowers the likelihood of questions being raised around the conduct and integrity of the officer.”

Lauderdale said that if the police department had digital cameras earlier, there would have been fewer questions of propriety in officer-involved shootings, including when former Officer Leonardo Quintana fatally shot 18-year-old Nathaniel Sanders II in May 2009, without activating his dashboard system.

The existing system requires officers to manually turn on the cameras to record footage, which is operated by VHS tapes. APD officers save the tapes for 180 days before wiping the footage and reusing them — only if the tapes do not contain criminal evidence, according to current department rules.

Under the new system, dash-cams will be automatically activated through various triggers on police vehicles, including when officers turn on their lights, sirens or are involved in a crash. Camera footage will be stored on a card and will be wirelessly transmitted to APD headquarters downtown from substations across the city.

The new system will cost an estimated $15.5 million, and the department has used $3.5 million to buy equipment and carry out staff services. The city borrowed the money and will be under contractual obligations until the debt is paid, generally over a five-to-seven year period.

“When I look at the amount of money and look at potential settlements of the city being sued, I think it’s a good investment,” Lauderdale said.

The police department recently chose a server and wireless transmitter network for the dash-cam system. APD will continue to test the substations and receive officer input to ensure the system meets their internal standards, said Sgt. Art Arevalo, supervisor for the police and technology unit.

“We’re looking for a solution that is going to last us for the next five to 10 years,” he said. “So we’re trying to pick our product wisely and to use the money wisely.”

APD plans to employ the new system in 38 vehicles in January and will ask City Council in February to approve the additional $12 million to finalize the project.