APD cruiser outside

An Athens Police Department cruiser sits outside of a crime scene in this file photo from February, 2018.

The city of Athens is moving toward possibly purchasing body-worn cameras for its police officers, as was discussed in committee meetings for the City Council Monday evening, though no decisions or recommendations were made.

Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle explained at the meeting that his department is interested in signing a contract with Axon (formerly TASER International), a company that currently supplies the department with Taser stun weapons.

The total cost for the project would be $214,179 over five years, Pyle said, and that price includes 20 cameras, as well as training materials, data management software and data storage services, and warranty services.

The city has been weighing the pros and cons of purchasing the cameras for about two years, city Service-Safety Director Andy Stone said at the meeting. “We’re in a place now where we think we have a valid approach to it,” he said.

Pyle said the city has been looking for a company that could supply body-worn cameras that would be compatible with the Taser devices APD officers currently use; hence the appeal of working with Axon, which has offered to supply both technologies for the city.

“A lot of our peer agencies in the southeast Ohio area… are using Axon,” Pyle said. Some of those agencies include the Chillicothe, Lancaster and Logan police departments, and Pyle said he’s spoken with police chiefs from those departments “over the last two years” to evaluate the feasibility of using the same tech for APD, as well as the way those departments manage public records.

One of the city’s major concerns has been the ability to comply with public-records laws with the immense amounts of data that body-worn cameras would generate.

“How do you manage the absolute terabytes of data that occur when you’re filming all the time, times X number of police officers, and comply with public-records laws,” Stone asked. “...Some other communities have kind of done the hard work of figuring it out.”

Pyle said the police chiefs he’s spoken to “are all very happy with the Axon product and have reported to a T that they just haven’t experienced the public-records issues that we’ve had concerns with over the last several years.”

Pyle also said that in recent years there has been a lot of legislation passed “further defining what constitutes public records” in relation to footage from body-worn cameras. 

“The Ohio Collaborative for Law Enforcement Accreditation in the state of Ohio has a standard for body-worn cameras,” Pyle said.

He added that APD currently uses Lexipol for policy management and training, and that the department would likely utilize that company’s policy for body-worn cameras, which falls in line with the state’s standards. 

“For all these reasons I just thought Axon was the right choice,” Pyle said, adding that the quote he’s been given for the Axon services was not too far from the amount that he had requested be allocated in this year’s budget for the purchase of cameras.

The contract would include not-yet-released “top of the line” cameras with image stabilization technology, but also would give APD credit for the current Tasers that officers use and allow the department to upgrade to the newest, also not-released Taser devices.

The more than $200,000 quote includes “our discounts and our credit for the Tasers that we currently have deployed,” Pyle said. “...To enter into the contract, there is a long-term commitment that the city would be undertaking” at least for five years, but “my guess is that this would be a commitment beyond that” either with Axon or some other company, Pyle said.

The Axon body-worn cameras would be about the size and weight of a Go-Pro camera, and would come with a magnetic mount that fastens to officers’ uniforms, “so they can be moved around,” Pyle said. They also would be compatible with the officers’ Taser technology.

“If we purchase 20 cameras... and 20 Tasers, and I have, let’s say, five officers at the scene of a high-level incident,” Pyle said. “If any of those officers deploys a Taser and turns it on, it turns on all cameras in the area and activates them without officer action.”  The cameras would also capture a buffer period of up to nine minutes before the camera was activated, Pyle said.

“If lights and sirens are turned on in the vehicle, it automatically activates the cameras, any camera in the area,” Pyle said.

The company would also retro-fit the agency with new holsters equipped with a switch or alarm, “so any officer that draws their service weapon at the scene of a high-level incident will activate all the cameras in the area… There’s a lot of automated technology,” Pyle said.

There is also a software system included in the contract. “This system provides us unlimited storage for not only the body-worn camera data that they’re estimating will be about four terabytes a year, but also it interfaces with our current records-management system,” Pyle said, explaining that the department could upload and store data “whether Axon collected it or not.”  So if APD officers obtain video surveillance files from a Walmart, for example, they could upload and store those files in Axon’s system. 

“The county prosecutor and the city prosecutor will have their own logins for the system and can log in and retrieve the data” as well, Pyle said. “…It’s a really robust system.”

Stone said the system is an improvement over the current set-up, “taking a thumb drive and having an officer go off the street to take the thumb drive to the prosecutor, and then (sometimes) there’s not enough room on the thumb drive.”

Pyle estimated that the city pays about $1,000 to $1,200 a year in thumb drives to share evidence with city and county prosecutors.

The Axon contract would also include training supplies and costs for up to 20 officers, Pyle said, adding that currently the city pays about $1,500 to $2,000 a year for training materials. (However, Pyle said his department likely would want to train and certify closer to 28 officers, so the city would pay an additional fee for each additional officer’s training.)

“The true cost to the city, once we remove the expenses we already have, is going to be a little less than the roughly $44,000 a year that they’re asking for,” Pyle said.

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