BERWYN – More than a month after Berwyn police Chief Robert Cimaglia asked the City Council to approve a 10-year, $3.8 million contract for police body cameras and other equipment with Axon Enterprise, questions continue about the cameras, company, the contract and the absence of an official city policy governing body cameras.
The City Council’s Oct. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting was devoted to discussion of the proposed $3.8 million contract with Axon (formerly known as Taser International), the Arizona-based company that invented the modern taser. The contract includes 114 body cameras, software and hardware, additional equipment and access to camera footage at Evidence.com, which is an arm of Axon.
Cimaglia initially asked the council to approve the contract Sept. 8, but the item was deferred after Berwyn residents voiced concerns.
On Sept. 10, Axon donated $2,500 to Mayor Robert Lovero’s roughly $260,000 campaign fund. Lovero later said he returned the donation.
Axon is the target of an April complaint by the Federal Trade Commission. Axon, in turn, has sued the FTC for “alleged violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
In addition to the Oct. 13 presentations to the council, Berwyn police announced Oct. 9 on Facebook that it would offer listening sessions about the contract with residents Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. The city declined requests to stream the sessions.
At the committee of the whole meeting, Berwyn Police Commander Michael Ochsner assured Alderman Rafael Avila that police would host additional listening sessions with residents if needed.
“We understand why we may not have heard enough [from community members], but we need to build that trust,” Sgt. Joseph Fitzgerald said.
At the Oct 15 listening session, Cimaglia was asked if he’d commit to more sessions before taking the matter to the council for a vote. Cimaglia responded that he would not.
He defended the $3.8 million contract in a Sept. 3 email to the council.
“Monetarily we can assign a number to this initiative, but in terms of building social capital and increasing trust/public perception, this is invaluable,” he said.
On Oct. 13, Lovero defended the cost by asking, “What’s a life worth?”
Council members had questions about funding nonetheless, as well as the city’s policy – or lack thereof – regarding police body cameras and access to footage. That policy has been drafted but cannot be approved until “the equipment is on hand,” Fitzgerald said.
Additional questions from council about whether the national bidding process, conducted by Minnesota-based Sourcewell on behalf of municipalities across the country, took into account Berwyn’s specific needs.
Sourcewell, police confirmed, receives payment from companies it recommends after those companies have signed contracts with municipalities.
Police cited Michael White’s paper on body cameras, stressing cameras could increase community trust with police.
White’s executive summary addresses the claim that “body-worn cameras increase transparency and citizen views of police legitimacy.” The executive summary continues: “This claim has not been sufficiently tested. There have been virtually no studies of citizens’ views of the technology.”
Asked by Ruiz whether the city reached out to any company other than Axon, Ochsner responded: “As far as the comprehensive package, it’s all been with Axon.”
Sourcewell’s request for proposals drew 80 responses, which were culled to four, police said. Of those, police said, only Axon meets Berwyn’s needs. Further, Berwyn has a 15-year relationship with Axon through their taser contracts, police said.
Police told council members that funding for the contract would come from funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that was passed by Congress in March in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the asset forfeiture fund and grants, among other sources.
That prompted questions from Ruiz and alderman Jose Ramirez, Cesar Santoy and Jeanine Reardon.
Ochsner said he did not have an “exact number” on forfeiture assets. He said the CARES Act funds could be “reappropriated to different things” and used to pay first responders. As for grants, Ochsner said the police department does not have any grant funding for the contract, has not applied for any and declined to name any grants it might apply for to cover costs.
Lovero told the council that “you can’t apply for a grant if you don’t have a contact approved,” adding that a request to state lawmakers had been made for funding.
Ruiz asked why police initially brought the contract to the council for approval without resident input.
“I hear you use some really key buzzwords,” Ruiz said. “You’ve used words like George Floyd, transparency, diversity, being inclusive and wanting public feedback and responses. Yet that wasn’t part of the procedure to get to this point. Can you elaborate on why now we’re working backward?”
“We’re not denying that this was an expedited process,” Fitzgerald said. “From June of last year to June of this year to July to August to this point, it’s there. But an overall slowdown at the last city council meeting and hearing the feedback from the community and the concerns is how we are going to make this completely holistic. We are trying to engage the community at this point. We’re genuine in what we’re doing.”
“I forgot the biggest word. Trust. That’s all. Thank you,” Ruiz replied.
The council meets Oct. 27. Cimaglia’s Sept. 3 memo states that “we feel comfortable moving forward with this initiative so it may be purchased and implemented by January 1, 2021.”