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Iowa Police Department Advocates for Body Cam Vendor Switch

Citing malfunctions and unreliability by current cameras, the Waterloo Police Department hopes to switch to a more reliable body camera vendor, Chief Joel Fitzgerald told City Council members at Monday's work session.

by Sydney Czyzon, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier / February 8, 2021

(TNS) — The Waterloo, Iowa, Police Department hopes to switch to a more reliable body camera vendor, Chief  Joel Fitzgerald  told City Council members at Monday's work session.

Fitzgerald said cameras from the department's current vendor, Safefleet, malfunction and cannot withstand entire police shifts. He described the proposed new vendor, Axon, as "reliable and dependable" and offering added safety features. The new agreement would include body cameras, tasers, in-car cameras, an evidence management system, new training and auto-transcription services.

The cameras could prevent Waterloo from lagging on releasing body camera footage in controversial incidents, Fitzgerald said. He said Waterloo "can't be like the Kenoshas," referencing a town in Wisconsin where police shot and killed a 29-year-old Black man named  Jacob Blake . The case relied heavily on cell phone footage because police did not have body cameras.

"It tells the story from top to bottom of what happened and why, and that's why we need it," Fitzgerald said. "God forbid if something happens in our city, I want to be able to stand up and say, 'Hey, we did it right,' 'Hey, we did it wrong.' This is what happened."

The chief plans to fund the new technology with revenue from added traffic cameras, which cite people for speeding or running red lights. He said the revenue from 10-12 more cameras will fund the Axon agreement.

The city made more than $556,000 from the existing 12 traffic cameras in calendar year 2020, Fitzgerald said.

He proposed putting 40% of traffic camera revenue toward Axon costs, and 60% in the city's general fund. He said the 40% threshold should "more than cover this project."

Axon would charge Waterloo more than $4 million over 10 years for the technology. The first year would cost about $224,000, the second year about $407,000, and subsequent years about $430,000, according to city records.

City Council member  Dave Boesen  asked what would happen if the Iowa Legislature banned red light cameras, a move considered in past legislative sessions. Fitzgerald said the funds could come from bonds, the budget or capital improvement funds.

"We're going to pay one way or we're going to pay another," Fitzgerald said.

Councilman  Jerome Amos Jr . said he was concerned citizens might view increased traffic cameras as mainly a revenue-generating move.

"When we first had this ... the reason that we implemented it was for safety purposes," Amos said. "We looked at it from a standpoint of what intersections needed it. And now I'm hearing we're going to basically double the amount of cameras."

Fitzgerald said the traffic cameras and Axon technology are about safety. He said the Axon cameras are "about people not being mistreated by police officers and about officers not being mistreated by citizens."

He said the traffic camera money currently offsets other budget items.

"This just further simplifies it," Fitzgerald said. "I think people would rather see us use it for body-worn cameras and solutions like this than see us use it for random things."

When officers unholster their guns or tasers, the Axon cameras can alert supervisors or dispatchers to watch the scene. Fitzgerald said the feature will allow officials to view situations in real time, questioning why force was used and giving feedback.

Axon cameras on all officers who arrive at active scenes will automatically turn on. The feature allows for multiple perspectives at an incident, Fitzgerald said. He said it prevents officers from forgetting to turn on cameras.

"Yes, we're human beings, we like to say we remember to turn those cameras on at all times, but I can honestly tell you that sometimes they don't turn on, and sometimes we wish we had that story," Fitzgerald said.

The body cameras have embedded GPS systems that track officer locations. Fitzgerald said this could help locate officers who run after suspects, and potentially help reach officers more quickly if they've been injured.

The cameras would include automated transcription, Fitzgerald said, which would save officers the time of manually getting information to write police reports. He said writing reports can take officers up to three hours at the station.

"We're able to keep officers on the street instead of keeping them inside," Fitzgerald said.

Councilman  Jonathan Grieder  questioned whether automated transcription could wrongly capture words. An Axon representative said the tool is 90% effective and improves the more officers use it. The upgraded tasers in the Axon agreement are more effective, easier to maintain and have longer battery life than current tasers, Fitzgerald said. He noted that tasers can prevent gunfire, and in turn, lawsuits, complaints and worker compensation claims.

Axon would offer police virtual reality training programs, which could be completed anywhere — not just the training academy. The training modules teach officers how to cope with trauma, medical conditions and use-of-force scenarios, among other topics. The training options change every couple months.

The new in-car camera systems could be substituted between cars. This would prevent the time hurdles of maintenance work on cameras, Fitzgerald said. The cameras feature automatic license plate reading, which would alert officers if nearby cars were involved in crimes.

Axon provides a cloud-based evidence management system to store video and information from all the technology. It allows video to be provided quickly to the district attorney, police station and media, Fitzgerald said. It tracks data and statistics for the department.

Fitzgerald said he worked with Axon in a previous police chief position.

The police department will have to get approval from the Waterloo City Council before signing an agreement with Axon. There is not yet a date for consideration.

(c)2021 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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