Criminal Justice Reform

Phoenix Speeds Up Bodycam Program After Years of Delay

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After cellphone video of a Phoenix police officer telling an unarmed black man he would "Put a fucking cap in your fucking head!" went viral, Police Chief Jeri Williams is speeding up efforts to equip all officers with body-worn cameras.

The department first participated in a bodycam pilot program in 2011. In the time city officials delayed equipping all officers with bodycams, millions of dollars have been spent settling lawsuits brought against Phoenix police, and dozens of people have said they were harmed by police, including being shot in the back and paralyzed, forced to eat marijuana, and subjected to warrantless body cavity searches.

In the past month alone, at least three multimillion-dollar notices of claim have been filed against the city over the actions of the Phoenix Police Department and its employees. In June 2017, the Phoenix City Council approved a $1.5 million payment to the family of Rumain Brisbon, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot in the back by Phoenix police in the presence of his girlfriend and daughter on his way to get them food. Just last month, the City Council approved a $200,000 payment to the family of a man who died in custody after Phoenix police officers choked, beat, and tased him.

A 2018 report by the Police Executive Research Forum found that Phoenix's first bodycam program (with just 10 percent of officers equipped with bodycams) reduced the number of lawsuits filed against police, lowered the amount of money spent settling such lawsuits, and seemed to encourage officers to use excessive force less often. And a 2014 study by Arizona State University found that the use of bodycams in the Maryvale precinct reduced complaints against officers by 23 percent.

Yet, the city has likely spent more money settling police misconduct lawsuits since 2011 than it will on the long-awaited bodycam program itself.

Some of the delay had to do with a heated bidding process for the bodycam contract plagued by unethical conduct and accusations of foul play. On several occasions, division among city officials over whether to pay for bodycams or use funds to hire more police officers was another reason for the stalled efforts to equip all officers with cameras.

Though VieVu originally won the bid in September 2016, Phoenix City Council members decided to restart the bidding process in January 2017. Days before the rebid announcement, Rick Smith, the CEO and founder of Axon, then known as Taser, sent an email to Chief Williams offering the department a free trial of Axon bodycams.

In February of this year, the city council approved a five-year, $5.7 million contract with Axon, a Scottsdale-based weapons and technology company, to provide cameras for 2,000 police officers as well as the necessary software and equipment to store the footage.

An earlier pilot program provided 300 cameras, some of which were acquired through a $600,000 federal grant given to the department in 2015. The new Axon cameras will replace the old cameras.

Last week, the department issued bodycams to officers at the Cactus Park Precinct in north Phoenix, bringing the current number of officers equipped with bodycams up to 950.

"We will have all of the first responders assigned cameras by August 12, 2019," said Sergeant Tommy Thompson in a statement emailed to Phoenix New Times. He added that by then, all patrol officers and sergeants, plus the Crisis Intervention Team and the Community Response Team, would have bodycams.

At a policy meeting called last week to discuss potential police department reforms, Williams said Axon has given them an additional 200 cameras for free after video of Phoenix police aggressively accosting Dravon Ames, his pregnant fiancée, and their two young children for shoplifting made international news. None of the Phoenix police officers present during the Ames encounter were wearing bodycams.

Last year, Phoenix police officers shot far more people than any other law enforcement agency in the United States. Phoenix police shot at people 44 times last year, killing 23. The NYPD shot at people 23 times, killing four. The NYPD has about 36,000 police officers. Phoenix has roughly 3,000 officers.

Yet Phoenix is currently both the largest city in the country without widespread use of bodycams and the largest city without a civilian review board for police.

The City Council discussed the possibility of implementing a civilian review board last week, but did not reach a decision; it will take up the topic again in September.

Phoenix Police Commander Steve Martos previously told the Arizona Republic that every officer who responds to 911 calls will have a bodycam by August.

Community action officers and officers in neighborhood-enforcement teams still will not have bodycams, although in last week's City Council meeting, Chief Williams said the additional cameras donated by Axon will "make sure we are able to outfit our neighborhood enforcement teams and our community action officers."

Sergeant Thompson said he believes this will bring the total number of officers with bodycams up to 1,400 by August 12, 2019, and that some of the 200 free cameras Axon threw in last week will also go to the Gang Squad.

That means 800 officers still have yet to receive bodycams under the original contract, which stated that 2,000 cameras would be provided to officers (not including the 200 free cameras).