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Proposal to expand Pittsburgh Police’s body- and dash-camera contract means rising costs

Philadelphia Police officers demonstrate a body-worn camera.
Matt Rourke
Philadelphia Police officers demonstrate a body-worn camera being used as part of a 2014 pilot project.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has asked City Council to revise a contract that leaders say would align the agency’s car-dashboard camera system with the body-camera system already in use.

The bureau has drawn up a 10-year contract with Axon Enterprise, which supplies its body cameras and Tasers. The new contract would extend that agreement, while also adding dashboard cameras, a video storage system and other support services to the city’s subscription.

Adopting the new contract, however, would require the city to spend an additional $45.3 million during the next 10 years. The city’s current five-year contract with Axon is priced at $10.9 million, compared to the proposed $47.5 million contract that would span 2024 to 2034.

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At a committee meeting Wednesday, Police Chief Larry Scirotto told council members that the deal in front of them would allow the city to procure the best technology at the lowest price. The bureau’s proposed contract with Axon includes the regular replacement of older models and upgrades to the newest iterations as they are released.

Scirotto stressed that it is essential for police officers to wear the body cameras Axon supplies to ensure their operations remain safe, accountable and transparent.

“We’re forecasting that we’re not ever going to be in an environment where we don’t require or demand this level of accountability,” Scirotto said. “We are securing a secure cost today so 10 years from now it isn’t cost-prohibitive for us as an organization.”

What the contract includes

The quoted contract would outfit 165 police cars with dashboard cameras, as well provide Tasers and body cameras for 950 officers.

That’s about 150 more officers than the current number the bureau employs. Scirotto said between upcoming retirements and plans to hire 70 new recruits, the bureau would require roughly 900 of each tool, and the department would pay for only the equipment it uses.

While the city now purchases its dash cams from L3Harris, that older system soon will not be supported without upgrades, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Because the Pittsburgh police bureau already had an existing contract with Axon, public safety leaders decided to replace and upgrade the cameras fleetwide with Axon products. Doing so also would make all of the fleet’s camera and video storage systems compatible.

“Having all of our services of this type in the hands of one vendor, and that allowing for the various pieces of equipment to communicate with each other and for the data storage to be integrated, will allow for the most seamless capturing of the necessary evidentiary data,” said Jake Pawlak, deputy mayor and head of the city’s Office of Management and Budget.

As an officer moves out of a car to being on foot, Pawlak said the officer's dashboard camera will tell the body camera to activate, and all video will be stored in one place.

The bureau already has begun to install Axon’s dashboard cameras in police vehicles — a move Pawlak said council authorized earlier this year. The company also will provide officers with 38 virtual reality headsets, which police Cmdr. Chris Ragland said would be used for scenario-based training that otherwise would require higher staffing levels to administer.

Roughly $44 million of the total cost over 10 years will go to cover the hardware. Beyond that, the contract includes the software required to use the cameras and storage for the footage recorded, as well as transcription services and a platform for surveying 911 callers after police have responded.

Pawlak said Axon will make many of those services free to the city once it commits to a 10-year contract, as opposed to a five-year one. Pawlak said by doing so, the city would save roughly $877,000 per year, or close to $10 million through the life of the contract.

The cost of “status quo” policing

Council members voted to recommend the resolution for a vote during its session next week, though not without skepticism about whether the deal offered was the best one for the city.

Axon is slated to receive $4 million to $5 million each year for the next 10 years under the contract — roughly double its current annual payment from the city.

Councilor Barb Warwick criticized the deal, which she said won’t improve the overall safety of city residents but will protect them only from potential harm during interactions with law enforcement.

Warwick equated the body cameras to the cost of a system that she said has historically been rife with mistrust and misconduct: Police officers are surveilled and scrutinized both to protect the public and to prove an officer’s innocence during questionable encounters.

“That is what the status quo of policing in this country is costing us,” Warwick said.

Meanwhile, Warwick pointed out, the city’s proposed affordable housing bond will end up raising fewer dollars than the entire cost of Axon’s 10-year contract.

“Here we regularly haggle over costs much smaller than this that will actually improve life for our residents and make life better in the city,” Warwick continued. “And just to be clear, this is just so that if we need to Taser a resident, we've got it on camera.”

After nearly two hours of questioning, Warwick, Councilor Anthony Coghill and Council President Theresa Kail-Smith each abstained from the vote.

Despite voting to move the contract forward, Councilor Erika Strassburger urged the city to limit its future contracts to shorter terms.

“I feel more comfortable with a contract being even just extended after five years rather than a full 10 years,” she added.

Other council members said they felt as though they were left with little choice but to approve of the contract. After all, Axon — formerly known as TASER International for its namesake product — is the industry standard for the technology the bureau is requesting, they said.

“The more dependent we are on all these combined services, in 10 years now, they can easily triple the price,” said Councilor Deb Gross.

But, according to Pawlak, Axon is the only company that can provide the “comprehensive set of technologies that are being procured here.”

He said that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.