Facing Year-End Deadline, OC Council Moves Ahead With Police Body Camera Contract

Facing Year-End Deadline, OC Council Moves Ahead With Police Body Camera Contract
Berlin police officers like Gary Bratten already wear body cameras. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

OCEAN CITY — Despite some questioning over the vendor’s contract deadlines, resort officials this week pulled the trigger on a $2.4 million deal to equip the town’s police officers with body-worn cameras.

Last year, state lawmakers passed legislation mandating law enforcement agencies equip their officers with body-worn cameras by 2025. Ocean City, for a variety of reasons, has chosen to move up its own target date for equipping officers with body-worn cameras to 2022.

The expedited goal is in place for a variety of reasons. For one, it has become increasingly dangerous for police officers in the current climate. For another reason, body-worn cameras also provide real-time physical evidence of police interactions.

The Ocean City Police Department’s aggressive campaign to launch a body-worn camera program came after a series of highly-publicized incidents on the Boardwalk last summer when the agency’s use of force was called into question. In those cases, short videos went viral showing only a small portion of the larger incidents that occurred.

For the last few months, the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and town officials have been moving forward with a body-worn camera program. Throughout the fall, the OCPD has been testing vendors and on Monday, Chief Ross Buzzuro and Captain Mike Colbert presented a pitch for a roughly $2.4 million five-year contract with Axon Enterprise, a noted leader in the body-worn camera field.

The Axon proposal includes body-worn cameras for all full-time police officers, an upgrade to the department’s taser program, drones and other amenities. It also includes storage, digital evidence management, coordination with other agencies and, perhaps most importantly, the State’s Attorney’s Office, which will be responsible for viewing body-worn camera footage when processing cases, for example. Buzzuro said after the extensive review and vetting process, Axon stood out among its competitors.

“We’ve done a comprehensive review,” he said. “We knew it was going to be inevitable for our officers. Late in the summer we looked at a variety of providers and one really stood out. They are the clear leader in body-worn cameras.”

Colbert agreed the Axon proposal on the table represented the best option for the town and its police department.

“When we started with the vendor studies, we were looking for a fully-integrated system to have in position for May 2022,” he said. “In September, we started testing Axon and attempted two others. One we weren’t satisfied with and the other couldn’t meet our desired timeline. Axon met our timeline and can deliver what we need in a timely matter.”

Buzzuro said the body-worn camera was beneficial both to the department’s officers and the public.

“We believe having our officers in body-worn cameras is best for their safety,” he said. “It’s also in the best interest of the public’s safety. They can see unedited what’s going on with the officers’ interactions.”

Mayor Rick Meehan praised the OCPD command staff for their diligence in moving toward the summer 2022 goal.

“Thank you for the dedication and the work you’ve put into this,” he said. “We now know exactly what we need. We know we’re not required to do it until 2025, but we’re able to reach our goal of 2022.”

Meehan said despite the proposal on the table, there were still obstacles to overcome with the body-worn camera program. For one thing, the contract as proposed has a Dec. 31 shelf-life and the terms of the contract will change if it is not consummated by that date. For example, if the contract is not completed by Dec. 31, just 11 days from Monday’s meeting, the price would jump by roughly $500,000 over the life of the five-year deal.

“There are a lot of moving parts here,” he said. “We need to work in unity with Worcester County and with the State’s Attorney’s Office. We need to keep moving forward for spring 2022 as the goal, but we still have obstacles to overcome. The timeline is a little difficult with the contract. Is there any wiggle room in those deadlines?”

Axon’s Kyle Hites said there’s an opportunity to negotiate, but that Dec. 31 deadline for the contract as presented on Monday was firm. City Solicitor Heather Stansbury said the contract could be completed by Dec. 31, but it would be challenging with the holidays in the mix.

“We can get this done if it can be done,” she said. “It’s an uphill challenge. They’re asking us to negotiate a contract by Dec. 31 in essentially 10 days including the holidays. It puts us in a difficult position.”

Councilman Mark Paddack pointed out body-worn cameras were an unfunded state mandate, but said the town was committed to implementing the program even before the state’s 2025 deadline.

“The state of Maryland mandated it,” he said. “It wasn’t our choice. The Town of Ocean City is ready to go live with this, but it just came to us this week.”

Paddack made a motion to accept the proposal as presented and direct staff and the city solicitor to work with Axon to extend the deadline for the savings for another 30 days. The price of the bundled contract will increase on Jan. 1. Essentially, it would add $500,000 to the life of the contract over five years if it is not completed by Dec. 31.

Councilman John Gehrig asked Hites again if there was any wiggle room in that Dec. 31 deadline.

“You want our business, right?” he said. “We’re looking at a $2.4 million contract and you’re giving us 16 days over the holidays to negotiate it. I support the initiative 100%. Are you certain those dates aren’t more flexible?”

Gehrig questioned the urgency to consummate a deal of the magnitude of the roughly $2.4 million contract. He suggested some elements of the contract could be completed, with continued negotiations on the portions under question.

“We can commit to doing business with you on certain things,” he said. “The body-worn camera aspect needs more time. I think the timing is off.”

Councilman Peter Buas also questioned the urgency of completing the contract by Dec. 31.

“I think we all want the cameras in place for the summer, but the timing is off,” he said. “We need a little more time to negotiate the contract.”

For his part, Hites said there was room for continued negotiation, but he personally could not guarantee the terms wouldn’t change after Dec. 31.

“We want to earn your business at the end of the day,” he said. “I just don’t have the authority to promise you a rate extension if the contract isn’t completed by Dec. 31.”

After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to approve the recommendation to move forward with Axon and directed Stansbury and staff to continue to work toward hammering out the details of the contract and bring it back to them at the earliest opportunity in January.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.