What’s The Story Behind the SFPD Body Cam Program’s Many Delays?

Taser Axon body-worn cameras purchased with $250,000 from a federal grant were on display at an April 30 press conference held by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr.

Taser Axon body-worn cameras purchased with $250,000 from a federal grant were on display at an April 30 press conference held by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

Updated Friday, 5:15 p.m.

When Greg Suhr took command of the San Francisco Police Department in April 2011, he had a scandal on his hands.

The city’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, had released surveillance video that, among other things, caught plainclothes San Francisco police officers in the act of illegally searching a room in a single-resident-occupancy hotel on a gritty part of Sixth Street, just south of Market. That video and others led to the indictment of half a dozen officers on a variety of corruption charges; four were convicted.

“We have no room in the department for dishonest cops,” Suhr said when he was sworn in, referring to the case.

But Adachi kept releasing incriminating video footage, prompting Suhr to announce he wanted to equip officers with body cameras to record searches. That statement — on May 17, 2011 — was Suhr’s first mention of a plan that eventually became a body camera pilot program.

Over the four years since then, Suhr has repeatedly promised that the department was very close to outfitting 50 plainclothes officers with the devices.

But the department didn’t actually buy any cameras until December 2014. And the pilot program never launched.

Instead, on April 30, Mayor Ed Lee, with Suhr at his side, announced that the city would spend more than $6 million to buy body cameras for the entire police department.

While other police departments around the country have extensively tested and deployed body cameras since Suhr first announced his plan, the San Francisco Police Department remains several months away from equipping its officers with the devices.

A KQED investigation found the department spent nine months obtaining a sole-source waiver allowing it to purchase cameras from Taser International, without considering other bids. Documents and interviews with top police officials reveal that the department requested a no-bid contract after field-testing only Taser cameras.

After receiving the waiver, another 14 months passed before the department signed a deal with the company.

And although Suhr and other department leaders made reference to it on multiple occasions, the department never provided a policy governing the use of the cameras to the city’s Police Commission. SFPD has cited multiple exemptions in open records law in an effort to keep its draft policy from the public — including that the document would reveal secret investigative techniques or procedures, and that as a draft, the policy need not be released.

“SFPD recently chose to forego the pilot program and instead proceed with implementing body-worn cameras department-wide,” the City Attorney’s Office wrote in a response to KQED’s petition to force the policy’s release. “The documents do not contain factual information, but are policy and planning recommendations that the department never carried out.”

A police officer in West Valley City Utah presses a button on his Taser Axon Flex controller to start recording. The department bought 190 systems in March.
A police officer in West Valley City Utah presses a button on his Taser Axon Flex controller to start recording. The department bought 190 systems in March. (George Frey/Getty Images)

The city attorney determined documents related to the “abandoned proposed pilot program” are of limited public interest and exempt from disclosure.

But the department’s handling of the pilot program has raised questions about its commitment to deploying cameras and its relationship with Taser as it prepares to spend millions on new cameras.

Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus said she has been contacted by other camera manufacturers asking whether the city would request bids for its next purchase. She said she didn’t know about the no-bid contract with Taser until KQED showed her the sole-source waiver. She asked about the department’s deal with Taser at last week’s Police Commission meeting.

“The cameras did go out to bid,” Suhr said at that meeting. “Taser won that bid.”

When DeJesus pressed Suhr on whether the department had received “an exception to go with one vendor” for the pilot program, the police chief said he would “look into that,” but it was his recollection that Taser International “came in low bid.”

Documents obtained by KQED show that Suhr himself requested and received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Justice, which funded the program, in April 2013. He also signed a similar request to the city’s Office of Contract Administration, allowing the department to purchase cameras from Taser without considering other bids. The OCA granted that request in September 2013.

Supervisor John Avalos says he is concerned the purchase could pave the way for a much larger no-bid contract with Taser. Suhr told the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee Wednesday that the next purchase would go out to bid.

The department’s deal with Taser included three years of a free subscription to its cloud-based data storage system, Evidence.com. But department leaders continued to raise concerns about the cost of storage for the pilot program after the deal was signed and the cameras were purchased.

As NPR recently reported, that’s in line with Taser’s shift to a focus on recurring subscription payments rather than one-off equipment sales.

“I think it will look more like your cable bill,” equity analyst Glenn Mattson told NPR. “A lot of times you get a pretty nice deal to get a cable subscription, you know, and then that introductory rate gets raised over time.”

SFPD’s pilot purchase from Taser is just the most recent chapter in a long effort to secure the department’s business, with a succession of police chiefs in the company’s corner.

Taser, best known as the maker of electronic “stun guns,” had been angling to get the city’s business for more than a decade.

San Francisco’s last four chiefs of police — Heather Fong, George Gascón, interim Chief Jeff Godown and Suhr — all tried to win approval from the city’s Police Commission to equip officers with the Taser weapons. But public opposition killed the proposal each time.

“They’ve marketed very aggressively to the SFPD,” former police commissioner Angela Chan said. “At one point, Taser International was even presenting to the Police Commission. Their presentation was clearly a commercial presentation.”

Taser’s executive vice president of global sales said San Francisco is one of only three major U.S. cities that doesn’t equip police with the company’s stun guns. Josh Isner said winning the pilot body camera contract is a point of pride for the Taser.

“In San Francisco, we weren’t an incumbent vendor,” Isner said, “and we still were awarded the contract there. We really haven’t had any type of relationship with the City of San Francisco, any type of procurement relationship, before interest in the body cams came out.”

Suhr announced he was dropping his attempt to deploy the stun guns in early April 2013. But at the same time, documents obtained through a Public Records Act request show, the chief was pursuing a no-bid contract with Taser to obtain the company’s Axon Flex body cameras and Evidence.com subscription.

On April 4, 2013, Suhr wrote a letter to the Justice Department requesting a waiver that would allow the Police Department to use $250,000 from a federal law-enforcement technology grant to buy wearable cameras from Taser without requesting bids from other manufacturers.

Suhr wrote that the department had begun researching wearable cameras in May 2012 — a full year after he first publicly suggested SFPD would use them. After reviewing a study by the Modesto Police Department and field testing cameras from Taser and one competitor, Vievu, he wrote:

“We believe that it is in the best interest of the San Francisco Police Department to purchase both the Axon camera systems and Evidence.com evidence managers from Taser International as sole source procurements.”

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr recently said he thought Taser had submitted the "low bid" for the department's body camera pilot program. He also said the city would request bids for the pending, much larger purchase.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr recently said he thought Taser had submitted the “low bid” for the department’s body camera pilot program. He also said the city would request bids for the pending, much larger purchase. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

An SFPD official said the field testing Suhr referred to consisted of using two camera systems from Taser for about six weeks. Deputy Chief Mikail Ali said the Vievu assessment consisted of little more than looking at the camera since the department lacked the needed computer software and hardware to fully test it.

The research by the Modesto Police Department, also mentioned by Suhr, appears to have been much more thorough than what the SFPD undertook. In requesting its own waiver for a no-bid contract for 158 Axon Flex cameras in 2012, the Modesto police explained the force had tested cameras from four different makers over a period of 13 months.

The department concluded that Taser’s Axon Flex system and its customer service were superior to offerings from competitors, though a report provided to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also noted problems with the Taser system. Officers experienced sporadic problems with the system’s functioning and lost some evidence, the document says, and some complained that the wires the device uses were too fragile.

The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services approved Suhr’s request to spend federal grant money on a no-bid purchase from Taser — with the caveat that the SFPD should also follow local contract and purchasing laws. The San Francisco Office of Contract Administration granted the department’s sole-source waiver in September 2013, citing the federal government’s approval.

By that time, the department was already negotiating with Taser to buy cameras, and Suhr was promising that a pilot body camera program was imminent.

Documents show that the company submitted a quote to the Police Department in June 2013. The heavily discounted total for a camera system and data storage totaled just under $350,000 — but substantially more than the $250,000 the department was talking about spending.

In August 2013, Suhr said the department would begin equipping 50 plainclothes officers with wearable video cameras “within the next six weeks.”

In January 2014, responding to an incident in which plainclothes officers were accused of beating a teenager who had been stopped for riding his bike on the sidewalk in the Valencia Gardens housing project, Suhr said the pilot program was just two weeks away.

But despite Suhr’s pledges, documents show the city was nowhere near buying the cameras the chief said it was about to deploy.

Through the early months of 2014, staffers in the Police Department and the city’s Office of Contract Administration exchanged emails about the status of the project.

“Taser International has expressed a willingness to address any concerns we may have with cost, terms and conditions,” SFPD Commander Mikail Ali wrote in a March 17, 2014 email. “They have a [sic] implementation team on standby waiting to come to our city upon execution of an agreement.”

Ali, whom Suhr had called his “gadget guy” and who has since been promoted to deputy chief, oversaw planning for the pilot program through late 2014. His replacement, Commander Bob Moser, declined multiple interview requests from KQED. The Police Department provided email correspondence addressed to Moser, but no responses or any other documents written by him.

After no apparent movement on the purchase, Taser last September came up with a new quote — for 165 Axon Flex cameras, support equipment, software and three years of free data storage — that fell within the Police Department’s $250,000 budget, though the department would still have to pay out of pocket for staff to administer the program.

SFPD agreed to that deal, and in December the city paid Taser $249,623.69. The cameras have yet to be deployed, however, as the department and Police Commission continue work on a policy to govern how the devices are to be used.

That policy will be crucial as the department weighs the purchase of 1,600 to 1,800 cameras to equip all of its officers. The initial price tag for a camera system is just the beginning of what the city will pay. At a Board of Supervisors hearing last October, Deputy Police Chief Sharon Ferrigno estimated the five-year cost of equipping all officers would be more than $21 million.

The major costs of the program include the cost of storing the massive amount of video the cameras record as well as the new personnel the department will need to handle the video.

The $6 million budget item Mayor Lee announced in April would cover just the first two years of the department-wide body camera program.

At the mayor’s announcement, Suhr declined to say who would supply the cameras the department needs.

“We are San Francisco, so we’re going to figure out whether or not we have to go out to bid for cameras or if we can go with the cameras that we were going to use already,” Suhr said. “But we’ll do it right so there’s no question that it wasn’t done right.”

Avalos, who called the board hearing on the cameras last fall, says whether the department will request bids for the expected camera purchase “shouldn’t even be a question.”

“The bidding process provides the opportunity for competition,” Avalos said, adding that issuing a request for proposals would invite any company that was interested to present their products’ capabilities — and give the city price quotes.

Supervisor John Avalos says he was alarmed to find out the police department was pursuing a no-bid contract for Taser body cameras at the same time the city was debating buying Taser "stun guns."
Supervisor John Avalos says he was alarmed to find out the police department was pursuing a no-bid contract for Taser body cameras at the same time the city was debating buying Taser “stun guns.” (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

He said issuing a bid request is “standard practice” and that should be the process followed for this multimillion dollar purchase.

“That’s a huge contract that I would not feel comfortable ever supporting without there being a competitive bid,” Avalos said. “But if Taser has created its own relationship and got its foot in the door … I would be alarmed and definitely would not want to move forward with anything that appears to be a sole-source contract.”

If the SFPD won’t pursue another sole-source contract with Taser, as Suhr indicated Wednesday, that’s a decision that was made recently.

Deputy Chief Ali said June 5 that it was yet to be determined whether the city would open up the bidding process, a decision that would ultimately be up to the city’s Office of Contract Administration.

“I won’t put the cart before the horse,” he said. “Those discussions are underway, and we’ll just have to see where they go.”

The Office of Contract Administration did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, nor did that office respond to KQED’s Public Records Act request. A representative said the office had given responsive documents to the Police Department.

Taser Executive Vice President Josh Isner said the decision to sole source or request bids is up to the police department and the city, and Taser is “happy to compete in either way.”

“As a public company, we can’t say too much about ongoing negotiations and forward facing information regarding deals,” Isner said. “It’d be a safe assumption to say — the fact that they already have our product — we’re certainly hoping to win the business for more of that same product.”

Suhr and other senior commanders have said that Taser’s offerings can’t be matched by the growing number of competing — and often cheaper — systems on the market.

Among the features the SFPD has cited are cloud storage of the massive amounts of data (which is available from other vendors) and the Taser Evidence.com system’s ability to obscure portions of video images to protect the identity of witnesses.

Ali said that given the department’s limited information technology capabilities, Taser’s cloud-based digital storage system made its product the only feasible choice for the city when it was shopping for cameras.

“How do we make certain that we have the most secure, economically feasible way of storing this data?” he said. “Axon had it. No one else had it at the time.”

Ali said the department had intended to field test Vievu cameras, but lacked the technology Vievu’s product required.

“We did not have that capacity to even test them beyond just looking at them physically,” he said. “We just didn’t have the physical capacity to do it because we had no means of storing it on a server in- house.”

Taser is one of a few leading suppliers of body-worn cameras, but its sales tactics have recently come under scrutiny.

An Associated Press investigation earlier this year found the company has aggressively courted local police chiefs in an effort to win the same kind of deal the company pursued with San Francisco — a no-bid contract where the competition never gets a chance to demonstrate its products or quote prices.

The AP’s disclosures recently prompted ethics reviews in Salt Lake City and Fort Worth, Texas.

Taser has also come under fire for hiring recently retired police chiefs with whom it has done business. The company announced in April it would change the practice after a New Mexico state audit blasted the hiring of the former police chief of Albuquerque while he was still on the city’s payroll. From now on, Taser said, it will wait a year before hiring retired police officials.

Isner confirmed that policy, and said the company has never had any similar relationship with anyone who works or has worked for the SFPD. He said Taser does focus on major cities like San Francisco.

“They represent a large portion of the policing market both in numbers and in thought leadership,” he said, “and San Francisco does fall into that category.”

Taser has become a dominant player despite the presence of competitors who say their body camera systems match Taser’s in quality while selling for a fraction of Taser’s price.

Peter Onruang, founder of Los Angeles-based Wolfcom Enterprises, says his firm is constantly outmaneuvered by Taser, often before getting a chance to bid. He said he’s hopeful San Francisco will allow Wolfcom to demonstrate its cameras, cloud-based storage system, and quote a price.

“You don’t know how frustrating it is to be the David versus Taser’s Goliath,” he said.

KQED’s Mia Zuckerkandel and Dan Brekke contributed to this report.

This report was updated Friday, June 19, to include responses from Taser International.

What’s The Story Behind the SFPD Body Cam Program’s Many Delays? 19 June,2015Alex Emslie

Author

Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a criminal justice reporter at KQED. He covers policing policy, crime and the courts.

He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at City College of San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University's journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Prior to joining KQED in 2013, Alex freelanced for various news outlets including the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Bay Guardian.

Alex is proud of his work at KQED on a spike in fatal officer-involved shootings in Vallejo, which uncovered that a single officer shot and killed three suspects over the course of five months. Alex's work with a team at KQED on police encounters with people in psychiatric crisis was cited in amicus briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. He received the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists Best Scoop award in 2015 for exposing a series of bigoted text messages swapped by San Francisco police officers. He was honored with 2010 San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and California Newspaper Publishers Association awards for breaking news reporting on the trial following the shooting of Oscar Grant. Email: aemslie@kqed.org. Twitter: @SFNewsReporter.

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