Aurora eyes new contract as body camera conversation amps up

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Officer Ed Nolte’s VIEVU camera is part of his uniform that he dons before going out on patrol, Sept. 16 at the Aurora Police Headquarters. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | As the use of body cameras across Colorado receives renewed scrutiny, officials in Aurora are preparing to part ways with the city’s longtime body camera vendor.

Later this month, Aurora city managers are expected to issue a formal request for proposals for a new contract that will provide hundreds of cameras to local police officers.

The city’s current contract with Vievu, a subsidiary of Axon, is slated to expire in October. Originally inked in 2015, City council members last fall approved a one-year extension with the company worth $286,899.

The new contract will likely cost several times that amount due to a rise in market costs and data storage needs, Aurora police officials have said. Late last year, Aurora police received an $850,000 grant to cover the expected cost increases for the next three years.

While the contract process has been delayed by several weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said the procurement with a new vendor remains a priority and is on track to be made by the end of the year.

“This is not like paper clips and notepads,” Batchelor said. “When you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, this is really critical infrastructure.”

Body cameras in Aurora have been the subject of ample criticism over the past year after multiple officers had their cameras become dislodged during the arrest of 23-year-old Elijah McClain last summer. McClain died several days after he was arrested.

In January, police made an emergency purchase of 200 new clamps to better secure the cameras to officers’ uniforms, according to a department spokesman. The city spent $2,000 on the new clips.

However, at least six of the new clips broke in the first month of use, causing the cameras to again come off on-duty, police said at a public meeting in February.

Aurora police are instructed to record almost all interactions with residents while on duty “unless such activation is not feasible,” according to department training directives. “In most circumstances, (an officer’s) camera equipment should be recording the entirety of a contact or incident.”

Officers can only turn off their camera during a citizen contact if they can state “an articulable reason” before the contact is over. Residents can request officers turn their cameras off during an interaction, though whether an officer heeds that request is up to their own discretion.

The city had 525 body worn cameras for police officers as of December. The body-worn camera program began in the city as a pilot initiative with the traffic unit in December 2011, according to city documents.

A sweeping criminal justice reform proposal introduced in the state legislature this week calls for all Colorado law enforcement personnel to be issued body cameras by July 2021. If passed, the bill would require agencies to release body-worn camera footage two weeks after an incident. Currently, district attorneys ask agencies to withhold footage for months while criminal cases are prepared.

George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th judicial district, said that timeline is too quick.

“To order it in all those cases I think is going to put at risk future criminal trials,” he said. “I think it’s too soon.”

The bill would also institute a defense stipulating that any officer who fails to turn a camera on or otherwise tampers with the instrument during an arrest would be presumed to have engaged in misconduct during the non-recorded moments.

While Brauchler questioned that built-in presumption of guilt, he said he supports the expanded use of body cameras in the state, but worries it could hamper the budgets of small, local agencies. He said his office spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just to store body camera footage used in local cases.

“The cost on this is explosive,” he said. “This bill becomes a giant unfunded mandate to non-state agencies.”

As it’s currently written, the bill would cost the state about $1.6 million next year, according to fiscal projections.

“The bill increases workload and costs in several areas for cities, counties, and other local governments that employ peace officers in local law enforcement agencies,” legislative analysts wrote in the bill’s fiscal note.

The state District Attorneys’ Council on Thursday issued a statement of support for many aspects of the expansive bill, including the increased use of body cameras.