Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake along with Commissioner Kevin Davis talks about choosing a vendor for body cameras for the Baltimore Police department. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Without seeing a single cost estimate, Baltimore officials have eliminated nine companies and selected another to provide body cameras to thousands of city police officers.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Tuesday that Taser International has been chosen to outfit more than 2,500 city police officers with cameras starting this year, though a contract with the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company still must be worked out and approved.
Negotiations begin Wednesday, when city officials will unseal and see for the first time the price that Taser intends to charge for its equipment and services, including camera maintenance and cloud storage.
Under the sealed-bid process set up by the city to award the contract — which is expected to cost $8 million to $10 million a year — taxpayers will not be privy to the pricing submitted by the other nine companies, all of which were eliminated during one of two technical reviews conducted by an anonymous city committee. The public also will not be told what aspects of the losing companies' proposals were deemed deficient.
Rawlings-Blake and her administration defended the process as a common approach to soliciting contract proposals and one that produced a competitively priced and viable bid. But others balked at the secrecy surrounding the sealed pricing and questioned the wisdom of announcing Taser's selection before negotiating with the company on cost.
In most government contracts, mostly at the federal level, both price and technical merit are considered, said Charles Tiefer, a government contracts professor at the University of Baltimore. "The federal government may give more weight to technical factors, like the technical factors being considered here, but it does not skip price altogether in selecting the awardee," he said.
Rawlings-Blake stressed in announcing Taser's selection that the city is working diligently to make an investment that won't turn into a "boondoggle."
"One mistake can cost the taxpayers millions," she said. "This was far more complex than simply going down the street to Radio Shack and grabbing cameras off the shelf."
Howard Libit, a mayoral spokesman, said neither Taser nor any of the other companies that submitted proposals knew that only one company would pass the technical review, so each had incentive to submit a competitively priced bid. The bids have remained under seal from the time they were submitted, officials said. The companies could not change them as the field was narrowed.
The cost proposal submitted by Taser will be unsealed Wednesday after the city's spending board accepts the company's technical proposal, the mayor said. The city's purchasing department will negotiate a final price for the contract, just as it does sole-source contracts that originate with a lone vendor, Libit said.
Rawlings-Blake said she hopes to have a contract finalized by March 1.
Asked what the city will do if Taser's proposed price is larger than expected, Libit said, "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it, but we're confident that we can structure a contract in a way that works to bring body cameras to Baltimore police quickly and for a cost within the range we're anticipating."
Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said Young — a member of the spending board — will ask the administration to explain the procurement process for the contract at the board meeting Wednesday, for his and the public's benefit. Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, another board member, did not respond to a request for comment.
The move toward body cameras reflects a national trend of law enforcement agencies adopting the devices as civilians increasingly post their own recordings of police interactions online.
Baltimore launched a pilot program in October, when more than 150 officers in east, west and central Baltimore were equipped with cameras from Taser and two other vendors that survived the first technical phase: Atlantic Tactical Inc. and Brekford Corp., the Anne Arundel firm that briefly ran the city's troubled speed-camera program.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser, said Taser could not comment until a contract is awarded and a purchase order received.
Rod Hillman, president and COO of Brekford, said the company was simply told it had not passed the technical review. His company plans to go through a debriefing with city officials to find out where it faltered. He declined to provide his company's cost proposal.
Hillman said that "for the most part, the process was fair," though negotiating on price with Taser as the sole survivor of the technical phase could be "tricky" for the city moving forward.
"I guess whatever price Taser names is the price," Hillman said. "That's a little concerning."
Chastine Gabiola, a spokeswoman for Atlantic Tactical's parent company, The Safariland Group, said Atlantic Tactical is not involved in the bidding process and declined to comment.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said officers who participated in the pilot gave feedback in surveys about the cameras and their effect on their interactions with the public. They preferred the Taser camera for its ability to keep track of information after the video had been taken, its storage capacity and its battery life, Davis said.
Davis said some technical concerns remain, including data storage, but officers are generally optimistic about the program.
They reported more positive interaction with the public and more compliant arrestees when wearing the cameras, Davis said.
"The interactions become less confrontational once everyone realizes — now when I say everyone, I'm including the cops in this — that there's a camera on the scene," Davis said.
Officers will be responsible for activating the cameras before interacting with civilians and for uploading the footage to cloud-based storage provided by the vendor. Officers' supervisors, the internal affairs division and the state's attorney's office will have access to the video.
Davis compared the body camera purchase to buying a house or car.
"There's consequences to getting it wrong, not only financial consequences ... that taxpayers find unacceptable, but it would be a huge step back for our ongoing transparency efforts if we didn't get this right."
According to Taser's website, the Axon model camera it offers is used by 95 percent of major agencies deploying body-worn cameras, including departments in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Fort Worth.
On the Eastern Shore, the Cambridge Police Department supplied Taser body cameras to its 48 officers last year and has no complaints, said Chief Dan Dvorak. The department spends about $34,000 a year on its program, which is a big but worthwhile expense for the small force, Dvorak said.
The system allows him and his officers to review footage quickly, to give prosecutors access with a simple Web link, and to allow members of the public to watch the footage if they have questions, he said.
"The toughest part," he said, "is the money."
The University of Baltimore's Tiefer said the city's process "may well produce" a solid contract, and the city may have been right to focus most heavily on the technical factors.
The city is "depending on a pretty new technology, and it has to function in difficult circumstances and satisfy very different audiences. This is not like buying fuel," Tiefer said. "So it's good that technical factors were given the most weight. It's just odd that price was apparently not a factor at all, or even a known aspect, in the award."
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
To ensure its contract with Taser is fair, the city should require the company to share information about its costs and expected profit, Tiefer said.
In order to assure the public that the contract is appropriate, the city should specify how Taser outperformed the other vendors, he said, and provide the range of prices offered by the other bidders.
"Baltimore could describe the range of prices without giving away any particular contractor's bottom line," Tiefer said. "That would allow the public to understand whether Taser is the most expensive of the bids, which would be a little worrisome, or even the middle of the bids, which would be reassuring."
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Doug Donovan and Mark Puente contributed to this article.