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Petaluma Police invest in evidence collection technology

In an era of increased scrutiny and calls for greater transparency, the Petaluma Police Department is purchasing 70 new body-worn cameras and overhauling its evidence collection system by contracting with one of the largest suppliers of law enforcement technology in the country.

The city council last week authorized a $456,000 purchase agreement with Axon Enterprises, approving a licensing deal that will allow the agency to store and access evidence on an Internet-based server.

According to a report by Police Chief Ken Savano, the department previously managed digital evidence on flash drives and occasionally even burned a CD, requiring staff to physically transport content whenever it needed to be shared with another agency.

For Petaluma Lt. Brian Miller, the expectation is that the cloud-based evidence portal and top-of-the-line cameras will streamline exchanges with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, and improve the overall quality of service as the reliance on technology increases for law enforcement nationwide.

“That will further that efficiency,” Miller said. “Included in that, discovery issues are always a major concern to ensure everything is being properly provided (to the courts). This solution provides a lot of chain of custody improvements and sharing improvements that ensures the proper contents are getting to where they need to be.”

The PPD has been using body cameras since 2014 as a means to collect evidence, better address complaints and provide greater opportunities for transparency, according to Savano’s report.

The department’s policy lets officers use their discretion when it comes to activating a body camera, but calls for their use during incidents where there’s an expectation that force might be needed, Miller said.

The goal of the policy was to protect victims and potential witnesses, but since video footage has become so vital to policing, “we’ve found that officers are recording more than what’s required,” he said.

The new vendor, Axon Enterprise, is providing the agency with the Axon Body 2, a roughly 3-inch-wide HD camera with hands-free activation and a wide lens that can capture a 143-degree field of view.

With cloud-based storage, police officials will be able to instantly upload footage after each shift, and provide the public with case-specific links to Axon’s Evidence.com website so witnesses have an easier route to share any data.

“Through this software, we can send the victim or reporting party a link, and they can send back their video content directly,” Miller said.

According to Savano’s report, the PPD can also send out public links to view footage, and better comply with Assembly Bill 748, which was passed last year and expanded the California Public Records Act, requiring law enforcement to share videos of critical incidents within 45 days.

The decision to change from a physical server to Internet storage was not made lightly, Miller said. The PPD and the city’s IT department evaluated the safeguards provided by Axon, and received all the right assurances that their content would be secure.

Axon spokesperson Carley Partridge said so far their systems have never been hacked.

“We aggressively conduct security testing of our products on a regular basis,” she said. “When weaknesses are found, we move quickly to evaluate the impact and remediate the issues.”

The company has made headlines recently for its stance on adding facial recognition software to its products, a form of artificial intelligence that identifies people’s faces in photos and videos.

Axon’s ethics board released a 42-page report last month that concluded facial recognition technology is not reliable enough to justify its use on body-worn cameras. MIT research has shown that AI less accurately identifies people with darker skin.

In May, San Francisco became the first city to outlaw the use of facial recognition software by municipal agencies, and the state assembly is considering a bill that would ban the pairing of face and other biometric surveillance with body-worn cameras.

Partridge said Axon is currently researching ways to “de-bias algorithms” before any technology is developed or deployed.

Like Axon, Petaluma Police haven’t ruled out the possibility of incorporating facial recognition into their body cameras to the extent that the law provides.

Under the contract, the department will receive upgrades twice over the next five years.

“If there’s a solution that helps us do our job better and address crime in the community, I think we would absolutely evaluate it,” Miller said.

The six-figure purchase will be spread across a five-year contract, with the largest payment of approximately $118,000 budgeted for the current fiscal year. Nearly $40,000 of the contract will be reimbursed through a grant from the Department of Justice.

The PPD will also be able to trade-in 34 of their 40 previous VieVu cameras, which Miller said have become largely obsolete since they were first purchased five years ago.

Not only did the download process take hours to complete, but sometimes they failed, he said, wasting staff time by forcing officers to wait at the station until their camera was ready.

Sometimes, those failed downloads even caused lapses in footage when an officer used a camera that had no memory available.

“The technology has improved a lot,” Miller said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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