Body camera firm: Albuquerque ‘rigged’ purchase deal for Taser
A Georgia-based police body camera manufacturer is alleging Albuquerque officials used an “inappropriate and illegal” process to reach a tentative agreement with Taser International Inc. for cameras and online video storage at the state’s largest law enforcement agency.
Ted Davis, president and CEO of Utility Associates Inc., filed a formal protest this week saying Taser’s initial bid of $4.7 million should have been disqualified last year because it did not meet the city’s requirements spelled out in a request for proposals.
Chief among Davis’ allegations is that Taser lowballed its initial bid by not including specific prices for cameras and other required equipment.
“That should’ve been it,” Davis said in a telephone interview with New Mexico In Depth from his office in Decatur, Ga. “It should’ve been over at that point.”
Utility Associates would have won the contract because it scored second, behind Taser, with the city’s seven-member selection committee.
Beyond his legal complaints, Davis said his company offered the Albuquerque Police Department a system that remedies problems the city has experienced with Taser’s equipment. His cameras turn on automatically in certain situations and even track officers’ locations with GPS, he said. Utility Associates also offers a more tamper-proof video-evidence storage system.
Taser’s cameras don’t use GPS, and that company’s online video storage is less secure, Davis said. But the city, which has used Taser since 2013, wasn’t interested in making a change.
“It appeared the [request for proposals] that was issued was very Taser-centric,” Davis said. “We thought it was totally rigged.”
The Albuquerque City Council still must approve the contract award and is expected to take it up next month.
Davis’ protest casts a shadow over the city’s selection process and comes amid state and federal criminal investigations into the city’s original 2013 contract with Taser and the police department’s alleged use of the Taser system to manipulate and delete video captured at police shootings.
The state Attorney General’s Office has been investigating for more than three years whether former police Chief Ray Schultz helped improperly steer a $2 million, no-bid contract to Taser in 2013 as he was preparing to take a thousand-dollar-a-day consulting job with the company. No charges have been filed.
Attorney General Hector Balderas “has expanded the scope of the investigation, and we anticipate a determination relatively soon,” spokesman James Hallinan said this week. He would not elaborate.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the 2014 shooting of 19-year-old Mary Hawkes by then-Albuquerque Officer Jeremy Dear. As part of that case, federal officials are investigating allegations that department personnel tampered with body camera video from the scene of the shooting using the Taser evidence storage system and other methods.
The city would not make anyone available for an interview, but Jennifer Bradley, an assistant city attorney in the purchasing division, said in an email that Albuquerque officials are “thoroughly reviewing” Davis’ protest and will decide whether it has merit. Bradley did not answer other questions, but she said the city is deciding whether to grant Davis a protest hearing, too.
A spokesman for Taser did not respond to New Mexico In Depth’s request for comment.
Despite the controversies and criminal investigations, Mayor Richard Berry’s administration seems determined to press ahead with Taser. The mayor’s chief of staff announced in December to the Albuquerque Journal that officials had used a “diametrically different” process from the 2013 deal to reach a tentative, roughly $5 million agreement for Taser to provide 2,000 body cameras and cloud-based video storage for the police department through 2020.
The city’s inspector general blessed the deal, saying the administration chose Taser with a “fair and unbiased process.”
Davis, whose company outfits officers at about 30 departments in cities such as Long Beach, Calif., Bowie, Md., and Bexar County, Texas, disagrees.
Taser’s bid should have been thrown out at the beginning of the selection, he said, because it did not include line-item pricing for two cameras for each officer, as the request for proposals required.
Davis also pointed out that Taser’s initial bid did not list prices for add-ons the Taser system needs to operate at the level Albuquerque police need, such as equipment for officers to view video in the field. In comparison, Utility Associates’ bid accurately reflected the cost of its body camera system, which resembles a computer with internet capabilities and doesn’t need add-ons to function in the field, he said.
New Mexico In Depth’s review of records provided by the city after a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act appears to show Taser did not list prices for the cameras and add-ons in its initial bid.
Records show the omissions allowed Taser to come in with a lower initial bid than Utility Associates, earning Taser higher marks for pricing from the city’s selection committee.
Taser also outscored Utility Associates in other categories, including quality of references and “project plan.”
Despite what Davis considers Taser’s disqualifying omissions in its initial bid, city officials allowed Taser to fix those problems in a “best and final offer” for the contract, which resulted in Taser’s bid price going up.
“I’ve never seen that happen before with a winning bidder,” Davis said of a cost increase in a best and final offer. “It’s a sealed bid and you cannot fix the deficiencies of a sealed bid after they’re opened. … That’s the whole ruse of this process. That best and final was not to give a lower cost, which is all it should be for, but in fact to let Taser win the business.”
Documents reviewed by New Mexico In Depth show the scoring committee lowered Taser’s marks on pricing in the “best and final offer” from a higher score the company won in its original bid.
Still, Taser narrowly beat Utility Associates’ $5 million price in the best and final offer and outscored Davis’ company.
The city now estimates the cost of Taser’s proposal at $5.17 million, according to an Albuquerque Journal story published last month — that’s higher than Utility Associates’ final price.
“I have no idea how that happened,” Davis said.
Companies have a history
This is not the first time Taser has squared off for business against Utility Associates, which has been battling for police body camera business around the nation since Utility Associates entered the ever-growing industry in 2014.
Davis has lost more contracts than he’s won against the world’s largest body camera manufacturer.
Taser appears to have one advantage that’s difficult for a smaller company to beat. Taser equips officers with body cameras in more than 30 major cities — including Dallas, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Miami — and scores of smaller departments around the country. Utility Associates outfits mostly smaller departments.
References from bigger departments often give Taser an edge in competitive contract situations. That’s part of how the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based camera giant beat Utility Associates on paper in Albuquerque, too.
But Davis has won court battles against cities that picked Taser over Utility Associates in problematic procurement processes. In Austin, Texas, Davis filed two protests with the city, citing many of the same concerns he has raised in Albuquerque; both were denied. But he used a lawsuit to enjoin Austin officials from purchasing Taser cameras, and that matter is pending in that state’s appeals courts.
But he keeps competing because, he said, his “Generation 2” cameras offer cities the full promise of the burgeoning technology: transparency capable of exonerating officers in frivolous claims and holding accountable officers who go too far, providing reliable and tamper-proof evidence storage and making it easier for officers to use the cameras in the field.
Taser, on the other hand, makes a “Generation 1” camera, he said, which does not do many of those things.
Utility’s equipment includes GPS tracking; live-streaming cameras that turn on automatically when the light bar on an officer’s car is engaged and the officer steps out; automatic uploads from the camera to a storage box in the trunk or a patrol car, which signals to the digital “cloud” that the video exists; and an “officer-down” function that alerts police dispatch when an officer is lying prone on the ground after, for example, a shooting or stabbing, then automatically calls for backup and an ambulance.
Davis described how his BodyWorn camera system works in the event of a police shooting: The camera senses the sound of the gunshot, and the company’s network automatically switches on the cameras of every officer in the area, recording audio and video beginning two minutes before the shot was fired. Officers do not have to press a button.
All of that video goes immediately to the vault in the patrol car, and because the system knows a gunshot was fired, it sends video to the cloud immediately. Because it’s automatically classified as a use of force, each of the videos is “quarantined.”
“So you don’t have to be concerned about the video being viewed, being discarded, being manipulated,” Davis said. “Only command staff or internal affairs would be able to see the video.”
The Taser system requires officers to turn cameras on, and they must plug the devices into a docking station to upload videos to the cloud after each shift. Moreover, once the videos are in the cloud, numerous department employees have access to them.
An observation from Albuquerque police officers who field-tested Davis’ camera systems in the fall reveals how high-quality his equipment is, but it didn’t necessarily help him, he said. On the first day, some of Utility Associates’ cameras had technical difficulties after being shipped from a trade show on short notice. Most of the cameras worked properly, but several Albuquerque patrol officers had a different concern.
“They told members of my team: ‘There is no way in hell that I’m going to wear a body camera that reports where I am,’ ” he said.
A team of Albuquerque tactical officers scored Utility Associates higher on the second day of the field test, providing good marks for the live-streaming and GPS capabilities. But because those officers constitute a smaller percentage of the force than the field officers, their scores carried less weight.
It is not clear whether the weighting scheme was developed in advance or after the scores came in.
Davis said that after he submitted his initial bid, he sent about 100 questions to city officials, asking whether they wanted to stiffen the requirements of the request for proposal to “ensure that the taxpayers would get the best bang for their buck. In our case, they threw all of our questions in the trash can and didn’t respond to one. That’s never happened to us before.”
Bradley, the assistant city attorney, said in her email to New Mexico In Depth that the city’s purchasing division “answered all questions that were received within the deadline.” She did not elaborate.
Davis said he’s pushing for his protest hearing in Albuquerque to be open to the public. And he said he is prepared to take the city to court if he loses.