Tampa Police Chief memo says mute feature of body-worn cameras cannot be tracked | Tampa Bay News | Tampa
After adding a controversial mute feature to cop-worn cameras earlier this year, Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor recently told the city council in a memo that the feature could not be monitored by the camera provider.
The mute function makes it easier for police to mute the sound in the field, which has sparked controversy across the country in very sensitive situations, including a police shootout and unlawful detention of a suspect. The TPD has also added a sleep function, which makes it easier for police to turn off all camera functions.
Because the functions have clouded police transparency on several occasions nationwide, many police departments, including the St. Petersburg Police, have chosen not to use it.
Last April, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay reported on the introduction of the mute feature. After the report, the council asked the TPD to provide a report on whether body camera provider Axon could track officers’ use of the mute feature.
O’Connor told CL that she made the decision to use the features, after the Police Benevolent Association requested them. On November 18, she sent the city council an update.
“Since August, the Tampa Police Department has been working with Axon regarding tracking the mute function of a body-worn camera,” O’Connor wrote in the memo. “Currently, Axon’s software does not have this feature. Axon updates their software frequently, and they realize that several customers have inquired about this feature.”
O’Connor went on to say that since TPD’s last appearance before the board earlier this year, the department has reached out to Axon on several occasions for updates on a timeline for implementing silence tracking and some sleep.
According to O’Connor, Axon’s project managers told TPD that follow-up will be discussed at the company’s upcoming “Voice of the Customer” meetings.
“Our account executive has assured TPD that we will be included in these discussions regarding the body-worn camera mute tracking,” O’Connor wrote. “Axon has not provided a timeline for when such functionality might be available in the future.”
She said the TPD routinely does quality assurance audits on many different things, including random reviews of body-worn camera footage.
“If at any time the department believes that the mute feature is being misused or abused by officers, discipline may be administered,” O’Connor wrote.
The topic was to be discussed at the city council meeting tomorrow, but it could now be deleted since the note explains that Axon cannot currently follow the function.
Councilwoman Lynn Hurtak told CL she’s read the memo and it’s a good thing that several cities, including Tampa, are asking for the mute feature to be followed.
“I hope the fact that the company has said other cities are also looking into this and asking about it is a good sign,” Hurtak said. “And you know, with a company that listens to its customers, I think we’ll eventually get to the feature, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
UPDATE: An hour and a half after this story was published, Axon responded to an inquiry sent by CL earlier today about Chief O’Connor’s memo to council. Axon disagreed with O’Connor’s claims, saying the functions could indeed be tracked, and sent an example. CL is working on a follow-up story with input from Axon and TPD.
The use of the mute function on body cameras has a troubled history.
In 2018, when Sacramento police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, the mute function was used immediately after an officer fired while discussing the situation.
According to NBC Newsthe incident, “opened a new front in the national debate over body cameras: the ability of officers to disable the device’s microphone”.
A 2018 survey by 12 News KPNX questioned the Mesa Police Department’s use of the mute feature, showing it was used by an officer when he arrested a councilman who was driving drunk, and the councilman and his wife tried to get out of the script. While speaking with his superior, the officer used the mute function three times.
The 12 News team spoke with Dr. William Terrill, a police culture expert at Arizona State University.
“If you turn it off for some reason, it’s a question of why that would be and it raises suspicion from a public perspective,” Terrill said. “It’s hard to say why Axon would incorporate this as a feature.”
In November of last year, a federal prosecution was opened against a Baton Rouge, Louisiana officer accused of disabling his body camera. before spitting profanity and unlawfully detaining a womancausing him injury.
When asked in April if she thought the controversies across the country were a cause for concern, O’Connor said: “I don’t really want to talk about the political decisions that other agencies make. I think every agency needs to consider the function of the cameras and how best to accommodate them.”
She also argued that the mute feature helps officers quickly silence their cameras when triggered inappropriately by sirens and other noises. She also said the standby feature makes it easier for officers to turn off their cameras when using the restroom. She added that the standby feature would allow an officer to quickly turn the camera back on if there was a crime where the officer was using the bathroom.
When asked if there had ever been a situation like this that happened at TPD that led O’Connor to make the decision to implement the features, she told CL: “I’m not 100% certain of that at the moment,” but added that she did a “very long review” of the changes before making them.