Atlanta’s police body cameras put on hold by court

Court ruling forces APD to press pause on the program for the foreseeable future

On a brisk night last month, a few dozen residents packed inside the Adamsville Recreation Center to learn about body cameras. Nearly a year and a half since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, the portable, box-shaped video cameras that attach to a cop’s uniform to record routine stops were finally hitting Atlanta’s streets. Police Chief George Turner explained where things stood: For the first six months of 2016, 110 officers in Zone 4—which includes most of southwest Atlanta, as well as Atlanta’s airport—would be required to wear the devices during patrol shifts. The trial run was to serve as the first step toward outfitting officers across the city with cameras in an effort to promote greater police accountability.

“It becomes as important as an officer’s weapon,” Turner said of the body cameras. “It provides the citizens and [officers] with the opportunity to make quality decisions and to defend the actions that they’ve done.”

That opportunity will now have to wait following a Fulton County Superior Court ruling that has put the APD’s body camera program on hold for the foreseeable future. The decision Wednesday by Judge Thomas Campbell is the result of a lawsuit brought against the city by a Decatur-based manufacturer of body cameras that accuses the APD of steering its body camera contract toward two other companies in what the lawsuit calls an “erroneous, arbitrary, [and] capricious” manner.

Campbell’s ruling effectively means the Atlanta Police Department won’t be wearing the cameras until the litigation is resolved. APD spokesperson Elizabeth Espy said the department has no choice to but to shelve the program for now. The lawsuit “stops this critical public safety initiative,” Espy said. “Moving forward, the City will consider its best strategy to restore this policing tool.”

Body cameras were first considered for Atlanta in early 2014 when the Atlanta Police Foundation—a private organization that supports police initiatives—evaluated several types of cameras in order to advise the city. “The conversation about video cameras is over,” Mayor Kasim Reed declared on Meet the Press that December, noting the city had started looking at body cameras before Brown’s death four months earlier.

Last spring the APD launched a formal contract bid process and began testing body cameras from the two applicants: Utility Associates, a Decatur firm that had provided the police force with mobile routers to transmit dash-cam videos as well as body cameras for the city’s corrections department; and Taser International, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of law-enforcement products.

In a memo to the city’s then-Chief Operating Officer Michael Geisler, Deputy Chief of Police C.J. Davis reported that Utility’s camera outperformed Taser’s. “We feel their product will serve us well,” she wrote. In a separate test, Samir Saini, the city’s head of IT services, praised Utility’s camera system, noting that it was cheaper, offered real-time search options, and didn’t require an officer to hit the record button. Geisler asked Utility for a 30-day test for 30 officers; Utility agreed to a 90-day trial with 130 officers.

But before that could happen, Deputy Chief Davis walked into a June 5 Atlanta City Council meeting with an unannounced measure to award Taser a $1.3 million contract for 1,250 body cameras. The department wanted to use a “special procurement” process that would allow it duplicate a deal similar to one in which Taser had supplied 1,000 cameras to Louisville’s police department. Given Taser’s reputation among big-city police departments, Davis told councilmembers the APD wanted to work with the company.

Utility’s employees cried foul at subsequent Council meetings. In an interview over the summer, President Ted Davis (no relation) pointed out the fact that the city would be paying Taser $500,000 more for a product that city officials had already deemed inferior. After councilmembers raised other questions about the deal, city procurement officers decided to start the bidding process over from scratch. Both Taser and Utility submitted new bids, but a third company, Texas-based WatchGuard Video, ultimately won the contract in late August.

In its lawsuit, Utility’s lawyers allege the city modified its requirements for the contract during the bidding process but didn’t notify companies within two weeks of the deadline as required by the city’s procurement code. They also claim the city did not review each proposal on a level playing field.

“It is apparent that the City did not judge fairly and abused its discretion,” the lawsuit said.

Judge Campbell is expected in coming months to hear Utility’s complaints about the “fatally flawed” bidding process. Ted Davis said he is “happy” with the ruling and hopes WatchGuard’s contract is voided so the APD can rebid the contract for a third time. Such an action could well bring counter-suits.

In other words, Atlanta, don’t look for police body cameras any time soon.