Tampa police chief and body camera provider at odds over mute function tracking

Chief Mary O'Connor said Axon's body camera software doesn't track the mute function, while the company says it can be tracked.

click to enlarge Tampa police chief and body camera provider at odds over mute function tracking
Photo by Dave Decker
A police body camera provider says Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor's claim that the mute function on TPD cameras can't be tracked is inaccurate.

On Nov. 18, O'Connor sent council a memo saying that camera company Axon's software can't track the use of a mute function.

City council had requested O'Connor to look into the use of the function because it has caused controversy around the country after being used by police in highly sensitive situations.

"Since August, the Tampa Police Department has been working with Axon regarding the tracking of a body-worn camera's mute feature," O'Connor wrote in the memo. "Currently, Axon's software does not have this functionality. Axon frequently upgrades their software, and they realize that several customers have inquired about this functionality."
But after an article about the memo was published by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Axon sent an email responding to O'Connor's statement. An Axon press representative said that both the sleep and the mute function on the body cameras can in fact be tracked by the software, and sent an example of how the tracking works via a report from an anonymous body camera.

"The audit trails for each individual device indicate if a camera is recording in mute or if it's in sleep mode, as well as duration," Axon wrote. "Thus, mute and sleep mode can indeed be tracked."
click to enlarge An example of an anonymous body camera audit from Axon, which shows when a camera is muted and for how long. - Via Axon
Via Axon
An example of an anonymous body camera audit from Axon, which shows when a camera is muted and for how long.
When O'Connor sent the memo to city council claiming the mute function can't be tracked, council planned to remove the discussion of body cameras from the agenda item for today's city council meeting. But after CL's article about the subject, council changed course and requested that O'Connor or a representative of TPD appear to discuss the issue.

However, O'Connor asked council for more time.

"I spoke with Chief O'Connor this morning, and due to some additional information, she's asking for a continuance so there's more time to figure out what's going on," Councilwoman Lynn Hurtak said.

Hurtak added that O'Connor had not given a date yet, and Hurtak offered the tentative date of Jan. 5, which council approved.

In Axon's statement to CL, the company made it clear that there is not yet a way to track the sleep and mute functions outside of downloading the audit report, but added, "it's important to note that use of sleep and mute features is captured within the device audit trail."

In her memo, O'Connor also mentioned that TPD and Axon will work to "find an automated solution" to the tracking function.

But city council didn't ask TPD to find an automated function. Councilmembers were concerned that the mute function has been used in situations around the country, such as police shootings and wrongful arrests, thus obscuring police transparency. It's why departments like Saint Pete Police have opted not to use mute or silence functions. Earlier this year, council asked TPD if there was any way the mute function could be tracked.
In the last paragraph of her memo to council, O'Connor said, "The Police Department conducts regular quality assurance audits of many different things, including the random review of body camera video."

Nowhere in the memo sent to council does O'Connor mention that there is the ability in Axon's software to track the sleep and mute functions.

At today's meeting, Councilman Bill Carlson chimed in on the situation, saying that he hopes the report back from TPD next year is transparent.

"We've seen a lot of information coming out that, although it may seem technically accurate, it's not exactly accurate and may be misleading," Carlson said. "And so I would encourage in the [TPD] report that's coming back that we be transparent and accurate with the information that's given."