AUSTIN, Texas -- A struggle with a suspect this week highlights the vulnerabilities of the Austin Police Department's body cameras.
Austin will spend almost $15 million on the system over the next decade. Through two contracts with Axon, the APD has 1,924 body cameras to place on police officers. The cameras mount to the uniform's breast pocket using a metal plate and magnets.
"In a tussle--in a fight--it is easily able to be pushed off," said Officer Albino Cadenas, who demonstrated his body camera Friday.
At 1:25 a.m. Wednesday, two Austin Police officers arrived to Austin's Warehouse District after a 911 call reporting a man with a knife was threatening bar staff. Both officers were wearing body cameras, but both of those cameras failed.
"One was knocked off of the officer and therefore did not record the incident," Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said. "The other one, in fact, stopped working during the struggle."
Police are asking witnesses to Wednesday's arrest to contact them and provide cell phone video, so they can get a full picture of what happened. Meanwhile, Manley said APD is reviewing how the cameras are attached to the department's uniforms.
"We are looking at other options," he said. "We are working with Axon, trying to find the best alternative that will reduce the likelihood or possibility for the body worn cameras to come off of our officers."
A court battle with a competing manufacturer held up Austin's body camera purchase. The first cameras began hitting Austin streets in April 2017. Since discussions began in 2014, the Austin Justice Coalition advocated for the deployment of body-worn cameras. However, he said his focus was on police transparency and accountability--not the cameras' vulnerabilities.
"I think it is sort of alarming," said Chas Moore, the group's founder. "Are there better tools? Are there better body cameras that can better handle a physical altercation?"
Manley said the camera's flaws are a focus of his moving forward.
"A system that is magnetic-based--if it gets hit or something gets grabbed, it is going to come loose," he said. "We, like other police departments across the country, have had issues where the camera will fall off."
Axon blames the vulnerabilities on the department's uniforms.
"Our body cameras are mounted via very powerful magnets," said Steve Tuttle, vice president of strategic communications for Axon. "They are designed to break away if pulled on very hard as we don't want the cameras to be used for leverage by a suspect during a fight. While it's not unheard of, it's very unusual for a camera to fall off in the field, even during altercations. We’re working with APD on this matter as they have a unique uniform challenge that we are in the process of resolving for them in the very near term."
Axon did not detail what that "unique uniform challenge" is. Moore said Austin should consider exploring other body camera options if the mounting issues cannot be resolved.
"If we choose to stay with them, I think this is the opportunity for [Axon] to get involved as well to have them make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.
Manley said the cameras have improved reviews of several use of force investigations--including many recent officer-involved shootings. He hopes to find resolve the issue soon.
"We want--just as much as the community wants--a system that is reliable, that's operational and that truly captures what is going on in these incidents," Manley said.
Steve Tuttle, Vice President of Strategic Communications, released the following statement:
“Axon offers a wide range of body camera mounting options to meet our customers varying needs. Officers' requirements for mounts can vary due to body type, assignments, agency policy, and uniform types. Therefore, some of Axon’s mounts are designed for versatility such as the Flexible Magnet and Outer Wear Magnet mounts, while others are designed for higher retention force such as the Molle Mount, Z-Clip or Velcro Mount. Some agencies require a mount that can break away such as the magnet mounts so the camera does not become a handle by which a suspect can manipulate the officer during an altercation. We are continuously working to improve the options we can offer our customers as their needs can change over time, and Axon is currently working with APD to find a solution that meets their needs.”
“We are not seeing any high number of our body-worn cameras falling off beyond what is anticipated during altercations that can be unique, dynamic and unpredictable. With more than 225,000 body cameras in the field, the number of similar incidents have been minimal and not what is beyond expected during unpredictable confrontations. What’s unique is that they have experienced a few dozen incidents where some magnets slip down or disconnect during foot chases.”
“We’re working directly with our law enforcement partner to resolve this situation and have provided a new non-magnetic prototype design in which APD is directly involved in the feedback loop and design input to provide a reliable and more robust configuration.”