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Quarterly: Summer 2020 - Katie Houston & Cameron Lagrone

A Firsthand Look at the Austin Police Department’s Newest Technology: Body-Worn Cameras

By Cameron Lagrone and Katie Houston

"Can you imagine what it would be like to have your every move recorded at work?" We remember discussing that very question when we first started our audit of the Austin police department's then new body-worn camera program. "I wonder if people ever talk to themselves or sing alone in the car while being filmed? What if the camera records an officer's personal conversation or what if they forget to turn it off when they go to the bathroom!?" Answers to these questions and more would soon be revealed. Join us in this Q&A style article where we take a look back on how we conducted a body-worn camera audit, what we learned from the project, and the impact our work had on the Austin Police Department (APD).

Where did the idea of auditing body cameras come from?

APD started rolling out body worn cameras in 2015. Soon after, the city was hit with a lawsuit from a vendor that was not selected in the solicitation process. When that lawsuit was later dismissed, the department resumed the implementation of this new technology. The first step was to set up the technological infrastructure needed to support the cameras – distributing cameras and charging cords to officers, installing camera docks for charging and uploading footage at each police substation, and issuing a department cell phone to officers for use with their cameras. APD also created a detailed body-worn camera policy for the department, and trained officers on how to operate their cameras and correctly upload their footage. This is a long-winded way to say that the department rolled out a massive new technology program in about 6-12 months. The Police Chief asked our office to come in and review the program, hoping to prove that it was operating successfully.

There was also a lot of skepticism around the use of body-worn cameras from the public. Body-worn cameras were sold with the idea that they would increase transparency in police officers’ interactions with the public. However, this had not turned out to the be true in several high-profile cases. We wanted to make sure that APD policy and use of body-worn cameras were creating maximum transparency.

In what ways did the ride-alongs with officers help you better understand how body cameras work?

Ride-alongs with officers were vital to our understanding of how officers used cameras while on duty. We were able to observe how the cameras came on when officers opened their door or used their lights. We also saw the officers use an app called Axon to categorize and upload their videos. Most importantly, we were able to ascertain officers' understanding of the department's body camera policies. This gave us an idea of what we should look for in further tests. For example, we found through ride-alongs that officers were not categorizing their videos correctly, which we confirmed in our sample video review.

How did you settle on testing 151 videos? That seems like such an odd number.

You’d be surprised how many people have said that! Our scope focused on a six-month period of body camera usage by the department. In those six months, APD officers recorded over 600,000 videos. We pulled a sample of 350 videos to review, but quickly found that officers were not always classifying videos correctly. As a result, we removed miscategorized videos like accidental recordings or start-up test videos. We ended up with 151 videos to review. Weird number we know, but there’s a method to the madness.

Why is it so critical that supervisors review body camera footage after the incident is over?

APD policy requires quarterly review of body camera footage by supervisors. Supervisor review (and subsequent discussion to correct officer behavior) is critical to ensuring officers are using their cameras correctly and that the goals of the body-worn camera program are achieved. Officers are required to turn on their body-worn cameras every time they respond to a call or interact with a member of the public. In Austin, officers typically work 12-hour shifts, which means there could be nearly 12 hours of footage recorded by an officer during a single shift. This amounts to hundreds of thousands of videos and thousands upon thousands of hours of footage. While there is no way that all of that footage could be reviewed, the department relies on supervisors to review at least some of their officers' footage and address any issues noted. This seems especially critical with a new process and technology.

How did you determine supervisor review was an issue?

To start, we were unable to identify a single documented example of a quarterly review performed by any APD supervisor. The department said that supervisors were doing reviews but not documenting them because the department had not yet developed a form for that purpose. We reviewed the electronic audit logs for the 151 body-worn camera videos that we tested in our sample and found that only 1 video had been viewed by a supervisor and that review occurred on the day of the incident. We did not find evidence that any of the videos had been viewed as part of a quarterly supervisor inspection.

Do you know if any changes have been made since you concluded the audit?

We do! We issued three recommendations in this audit. One recommendation was for the Chief to start enforcing department policy by requiring supervisors to conduct the quarterly reviews. We issued a second recommendation relating to how the police were tracking public information requests. Both of those were reported by management as implemented and we confirmed these were implemented through some follow up testing. Third, we recommended that the Chief designate someone to be primarily responsible for this program and establish more program-level oversight. APD is still working on that one.

What's the weirdest video footage you saw?

Aside from the occasional indelicate quip and one memorable, yet comical belch, we didn't stumble upon any footage you wouldn't want your mom to see. Truthfully, most footage we saw was rather mundane. However, we viewed one video where a car slowly (very slowly) backed out of a regular driveway in routine fashion and then somehow ended up completely flipped over onto another vehicle that was parked across the street. To this day, we ponder how this could have happened and how it defies all that we know of physics and spatial reasoning.

Any parting words?

The transparency and accountability that body-worn cameras bring to law enforcement cannot be overstated. At audit committee, Austin's mayor pointed out that the benefits of having body-worn camera footage available for the more consequential interactions between police and the public is reason alone to ensure all interactions are recorded and categorized, and subject to some type of quality control or supervisor review. We couldn’t agree more, and we encourage all auditors to consider performing a body camera audit in their respective jurisdictions in the hopes that we can help improve transparency and accountability in law enforcement.

Last thing, we want to give a shout out to our third audit team member, Maria Stroth, with a thanks for all her help on this project.

For more information or to read the complete audit report, click here.

About the Authors

Cameron Lagrone, CGAP, works as a Chief Performance Analyst for the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General. Before arriving in Chicago in January, she worked for the City of Austin Auditor’s Office and also has experience in state government and non-profits. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology from Baylor University and a Master of Public Affairs degree from University of Texas. She’s also recently learned that she is a master of hosting on Zoom – trivia nights, murder mystery parties – you name it, she can do it.

Katie Houston, CPA, CIA, CFE, works as an Assistant City Auditor for Austin's Office of the City Auditor. Before joining the City in 2013, she worked in Texas State government. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from Westminster College and a Master of Business Administration degree from St. Edward's University. Katie’s first love is audit but in her free time, she enjoys all things Austin including: hiking, camping, BBQ’ing, and gardening with her pets, Willie and Waylon. Her greatest aspiration is winning “Yard of the Month.”