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Fort Worth police want new body cams, stun guns and automatic license plate readers

A close up of the side of a black-and-white Fort Worth police vehicle. It has the city's longhorn steer logo and the slogan "Where the West Begins."
Keren I. Carrión
/
KERA

The Fort Worth Police Department says the new equipment will help the force be more transparent and efficient. Some Fort Worth City Council members want to make sure there are limitations for the technology in place before they say yes.

The Fort Worth Police Department is asking for new body cameras, new stun guns, new drones and an automatic license plate recognition system as part of a proposed technology contract.

Police Chief Neil Noakes presented the proposal to the City Council on Tuesday. The contract would cost about $6 million per year and bring the department’s technology services under one company, Axon, formerly known as Taser. The department’s current tech contracts are split between Axon and a few other companies, according to a City Council presentation.

The police department is pitching the new technology as a tool to make the department more efficient and transparent. The new body cameras would automatically activate when officers draw a weapon like a Taser or a gun, said Lt. Vincent Brown, who helped make the police department’s case at City Council. Supervisors could livestream officers’ body camera feeds and give them advice on how to keep situations calm.

“To have somebody that can talk to you and say 'Hey, this is kinda what’s going on, be careful of this,’ it can help deescalate, and that’s what our ultimate goal is,” Brown said.

Without the new contract and new products, the police department’s technology contracts would be cheaper next year at $5.6 million, Brown said. The technology contract cost $3.66 million last year.

City Council members Gyna Bivens, Chris Nettles and Jared Williams all expressed concerns about the potential for officers to deactivate their own cameras. Nettles asked for policies to be set before the City Council votes on the contract. That vote is scheduled for April 26.

“When the vote is taking place, I want to take a vote on what’s in black and white, and not what’s on a maybe or a wish, because those maybes or wishes may not never happen,” Nettles said.

The new contract would also put automatic license plate readers in more patrol cars, helping police identify vehicles connected to crimes.

Some organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice, say while these readers can be instrumental in catching suspects, they also make it easier for police departments to collect data on people unconnected with any crime and to surveil people.

Council member Elizabeth Beck said she wants a policy that makes sure data is deleted after a certain period, not kept indefinitely. The city needs to be careful “that we don’t step too far and cross a line that violates our Constitution and our rights to privacy,” she said.

The city should develop policies on the best way to use the new technology, said Fort Worth Police Monitor Kim Neal. Her office has already been working on enhancing the department’s body camera policy, she said, but there are no policies surrounding things like license plate readers.

Fort Worth’s business partnership with Axon has been controversial in the past. In 2015, The Associated Press reported that during his time as Fort Worth Police Chief, Jeff Halstead lobbied the city for a contract with Axon and accepted airfare and hotel stays from the company after the contract was approved.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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