The Oakland Police Department's emblem depicting a badge with a six-pointed star, City Hall, and ships at the port.
Credit: Amir Aziz

By the end of April, every Oakland police officer will be outfitted with a new body-worn camera that automatically activates whenever they unholster their gun.

The new technology was approved by the Oakland City Council last year and will cost $1.6 million annually. The city has contracted the work to Axon, a company that makes cameras and Taser stun weapons, and stores police videos in its cloud system 

At their meeting on Tuesday, the council increased Axon’s contract by $250,000 to pay for the installation of similar sensors in OPD patrol vehicles, which will automatically activate officers’ body cameras whenever they turn on their emergency lights or open the vehicle’s doors to get out.

The auto-activation technology is intended to fix a problem that surfaced after OPD first outfitted some of its officers with body cameras in 2010. The cameras were initially viewed as a major success: By 2014, most OPD officers were wearing them and use of force incidents had dropped by 57%. But many officers were also found to not be properly using the body cameras, which until now needed to be turned on manually by flicking a switch or pressing a button. 

This failure by some officers to activate the cameras has been cited as one obstacle impeding OPD’s completion of its nearly 20-year-old federal reform program. Robert Warshaw, the independent monitor who oversees OPD’s compliance with those reforms, reported earlier this year that officers failed to activate their body cameras at the proper time in 20-30% of the use-of-force incidents his team audited.

OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong told The Oaklandside in an interview last month that he believes the new auto-activation technology will help the department improve on those numbers.

Axon’s body cameras store video in a cloud system known as Credit: Ahoogabooga

Some scholars and activists have questioned whether body cameras actually change police behavior for the better. But body-camera footage has proved to be a useful tool in identifying and addressing problem behavior by Oakland police.

Body-camera video was used by a team of researchers led by Stanford Professor Jennifer Eberhardt in 2017 to show that OPD officers tended to use less respectful language toward Black people. The department then used the research to retrain officers in an attempt to address racial bias in policing. 

Body camera video has also played a key role in police misconduct cases in Oakland. According to the city’s civilian Police Commission and OPD’s internal affairs division, many complaints against officers for using excessive force or other violations can be solved definitively by reviewing body-camera video. Most of the time, video exonerates the officers. However, a recording of the 2018 shooting of Joshua Pawlik became key evidence in that police misconduct case, which resulted in the firing of five officers.

Assistant Chief Darren Allison told the City Council Tuesday that OPD initially planned on having the city’s Public Works Department install the auto-activation sensors in patrol vehicles, but it was later determined that that department lacked the capacity to do this. The $250,000 added to Axon’s contract will now help pay for the installation. According to OPD, the department will find the additional money within its existing budget.

The total cost of OPD’s body-camera contract is $8.44 million over the next five years.

West Oakland Councilmember Carroll Fife, who has sought to reduce Oakland’s spending on police, voted in favor of the contract after hearing that OPD’s share of the overall city budget isn’t being increased. “It’s public safety equipment that would enhance transparency for the community,” she added.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.