With approval from the Mobile City Council on Tuesday, all of the roughly 500 sworn Mobile police officers will be required to wear body cameras while on duty, regardless of rank or job.
The move comes after two officer-involved shootings occurred recently where there was either no body camera footage or limited body camera footage available.
In one case, a suspect was killed in an alleged firefight with SWAT officers. Before the council’s action, SWAT officers were not required to wear body cameras. In another shooting, a police supervisor shot and killed a suspect. As with SWAT officers, supervisors were also not required to wear cameras.
The action by councilors approved a multi-year contract with Axon Enterprises Inc. for body cameras and storage capacity. The contract, which was an item sponsored by Mayor Sandy Stimpson, would result in a number of payments, including a $666,000 payment through September 2021, a second payment of $2 million and three annual renewals of $1.3 million to finish out the five-year agreement, city Chief of Staff James Barber said. At the end of the five years, the contract would need to be renegotiated, Barber said.
This would be in addition to other contracts previously entered into by councilors for body cameras for patrol officers in 2015. That contract with TASER International costs the city $400,000 per year for 350 cameras. The contract did not include data storage.
The new cameras make Mobile the only city Barber said he knows of that would require cameras on all officers regardless of rank or position.
When asked by Councilman C.J. Small when cameras would be activated, Barber said there are three different automatic activation points on the cameras in question. The camera would activate when a stun gun is used, when a firearm is taken out of a holster or when a police vehicle’s blue lights are turned on. Barber added officers will be required to manually activate the cameras when interacting with the public in most circumstances, including during arrests. He told councilors initial witness interviews would not be recorded.
“I appreciate that so much,” Small said. “When the recordings come out, the truth comes out. We will be able to find out if the citizen is totally wrong or if the officer is totally wrong.”
In some instances, though, officers still might show up to the scene without a body camera, Barber confirmed after hearing a question from Councilwoman Gina Gregory. For instance, he said forcing off-duty officers arriving at the scene of an emergency to wear a camera would be complicated. However, officers working overtime or those with second security jobs would be required to wear a camera, he said.
Councilman Fred Richardson voted to approve the cameras he has pushed for, but wasn’t as enthusiastic about them as others might have been. Instead, he urged the city and the Mobile Police Department to be more forthcoming when asked to release footage from body cameras.
“I applaud issuing body cameras for all sworn officers … but it won’t do any good if we can’t see the footage. They might as well be turned off,” he said.
In many cases, Richardson said, police only release the information when it benefits the department. He argued it should be considered public information with few strings attached, instead.
“If the information is gathered by a public employee, the public ought to have a right to see it,” he said. “It’s public information.”
In other business, councilors questioned the expense of a nearly $15,000 demolition of a residential structure at 307 Stocking Street before approving the contract.
Deputy Director of Municipal Enforcement David Daughenbaugh said the December demolition only received one official bid, despite the information for the contract being shared with six local demolition specialists.
During a pre-conference meeting, Daughenbaugh initially gave councilors the wrong square footage for the two-story structure and failed to mention a detached garage was also removed.
During the council’s regular meeting, Daughenbaugh amended his previous comments to specify the home, along with additions and the garage, was more than 5,000 square feet, which contributed to the cost. The city was also asked by the Historical Development Commission to hold off on demolishing the main structure, as it was part of the Leinkauf Historic District and needed to be saved, if possible, he said.
However, damage to the home’s addition from Hurricane Sally in September and the proximity of that damage to a neighboring home, made immediate demolition necessary. The request for bids went out in early December, Daughenbaugh said, while a number of contractors were still picking up debris related to two hurricanes that hit the area. Daughenbaugh said that could explain the dearth of bids.
Reggie Hill, a frequent council meeting commenter, was muted and removed from the body’s Zoom-enabled virtual meeting because councilors didn’t believe he was sticking to the issues he had signed up to speak about.
Hill had told the city clerk’s office he wished to comment on the demolition of the aforementioned structure, but was accused of going off topic. Hill asked Daughenbaugh how the city could avoid similar issues involving confusion over the home in question, but he also discussed other demolition issues during his allotted three minutes to speak.
Councilman Joel Daves was the first member to speak out against allowing Hill to speak on another topic appearing on the agenda later on in the meeting.
“I reject giving Mr. Hill another bite at the apple,” Daves said. “His last comment was not about a specific topic, but was a series of questions about the demolition process.”
Council President Levon Manzie agreed with Daves, but gave Hill the benefit of the doubt and let him start to speak for three more minutes.
Hill began telling councilors he always remained on topic throughout his time speaking out. At that point, he was interrupted by Manzie and reminded again to stay on topic. When Hill began to speak again, he began by thanking members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
A number of councilors then cut Hill off and had City Clerk Lisa Lambert mute him.
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