Lawsuit Blocks Atlanta Police Body Cameras

We should have had body cameras on Atlanta police officers by now. The police were ready to buy them last summer. But problems with Atlanta’s procurement contract have now exploded into a lawsuit that may delay implementation until next year.

The contract has been bid out twice now. The city prepared to offer a $1.3 million contract to Taser for cameras before Utility Associates, a Decatur-based camera maker, argued that the city violated it’s bidding process. In a rebid last year, Texas-based WatchGuard Video, won the contract, leading Utility to sue, claiming that the violated its procurement code.

Judge Thomas Campbell of Fulton County Superior Court put the contract on hold with an order last week, which means APD won’t field cameras until the suit is resolved, wrote Max Blau at Atlanta Magazine

I can completely understand why a local firm would be infuriated at losing a contract to the largest local consumer of bodyworn cameras. I can also understand why Taser appeals to Atlanta’s police brass — the company has a long working relationship here, and solves some daunting storage and retrieval cost problems.

What I can’t understand is how this is taking so long. A security guard at Atlanta Metro Mall figured out how to field a body camera three years ago. One of the officers in my city of Pine Lake wears a body camera that he bought out of pocket, as a matter of personal liability protection. I would suggest that this is an attempt at evading the scrutiny of recorded oversight, but that would presume Atlanta’s city procurement officials were organized enough to pull off that kind of deviousness.

Meanwhile, DeKalb County is also mired in body camera delays. The county had been hoping for a federal grant to cover some of its costs. Alas, it did not materialize. Rather than buy the cameras and hope for reimbursement, they’ve been waiting. And waiting. The million-dollar bid hasn’t been put before the commission for a vote, despite money set aside in the budget a year ago.

Gwinnett set aside money this year for body cameras, and Cobb County started a pilot program for body cameras in 2014. Nonetheless, a lack of urgency on the part of larger departments around metro Atlanta leaves the public with a patchwork of implementation.

My broader concern is that this patchwork extends to policy. There’s no state standard set through POST or by practice for minimum capabilities in a bodyworn camera system, how police should operate the cameras or how video is to be stored and retrieved. There’s a lot of room to argue the finer points of policy, but those arguments won’t begin in earnest until enough departments field cameras for best practices to emerge.

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Sound concerns. If ignored and decisions based on the cameras unravel, it will be a scandal and a public expense well beyond the purchase price.