On Wednesday, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter emailed all city employees with a warning about ethics.
He told them to be careful about violations like the one the police department committed in May 2015, when Deputy Police Chief Eugene Smith accepted a trip to Arizona paid for by law enforcement equipment vendor Taser International.
Bieter’s message said he believes that Smith’s transgression was not intentional and that the trip did not influence the city’s ultimate decision to pay Taser up to $1.5 million over five years to provide body cameras for officers and store evidence collected during the filming of police activities. Bieter’s spokesman, Mike Journee, said the trip wasn’t illegal.
“However, the acceptance of this trip in the midst of our decision process concerns me and members of the council greatly,” Bieter said in the email. “It also is likely to color the public’s perception of our contract with this vendor negatively and could impact their trust of our collective hard work. That is unacceptable.”
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In an interview with the Statesman on Friday, Smith accepted responsibility for his mistake. Like Bieter, he insisted the trip didn’t tilt the city’s decision toward Taser, though.
“I should have recognized it didn’t look right,” he said. “We should have still gone, but we should have just had (the police department) pay for the trip.”
The Boise Police Department started looking into the benefits, complications and other considerations of putting body cameras on officers four or five years ago, Smith said.
Department representatives attended law enforcement and technology summits where on-body cameras were discussed, he said. As they researched the technology, department leaders found three potential vendors: Taser, Vievu and Panasonic. The cost of cameras alone was fairly similar across the board, Smith said.
Between late 2014 and early 2015, Smith said, officers tested models from each company. The department quickly discarded Panasonic, partly because the camera equipment had a cumbersome battery.
Vievu’s system was much better, but officers had to wear that company’s cameras on their chests. That’s not ideal, Smith said, because an officer’s hands and arms might partially block the camera when holding a weapon — a moment when having an unobstructed view is crucial.
The question is: Did they do their due diligence? (That’s) what The Wall Street Journal did not even really ask.
Boise Deputy Police Chief Eugene Smith on Boise’s decision to pay Taser for body cameras
Taser offered the ability for officers to wear cameras on their shoulders, heads or even glasses. On top of that, Smith said, Taser offered cloud-based storage of camera footage. That was a big selling point at City Hall, where budget and IT experts didn’t want the expensive burden of setting up and maintaining an ever-increasing number of servers to store evidence. Exact numbers for how much that would have cost weren’t available Friday afternoon. Smith said city leaders concluded that paying Taser for a connection to cloud-based storage was a better deal.
Also, neighboring agencies such as the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, the Meridian Police Department, the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office and Boise’s own legal team use the same cloud-based evidence storage that’s part of the Taser deal.
By early last year, Boise police were leaning toward hiring Taser.
In May 2015, Taser paid for Smith to attend a conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. Smith went a couple of days early to spend time with family members. He said he paid for that extra time out of his pocket.
Even though he regrets allowing Taser to pay for the trip, Smith said some good came out of it. Besides Taser reps, he said, representatives of dozens of other law enforcement agencies were there, and he came away with a better understanding of how the evidence storage works and ideas for policies on redacting video and who can view it.
After the trip, Smith said, BPD’s talks about hiring Taser intensified. By fall, the city was putting together a contract.
State law requires cities to ask for bids when buying goods on contracts worth more than $25,000. The city of Boise’s threshold is $10,000, purchasing manager Colin Millar said.
But because department leaders had concluded that only Taser offered the combination of goods and services the department needed, Millar said, a nonbid — or “sole-source” — contract was legal. In fact, he said, a bid process would have been like “just going through hoops to kid yourself.”
The Wall Street Journal story looked at Taser’s ability to secure no-bid contracts with law enforcement agencies across the country.
The story referenced the Boise Police Department and quoted emails between Smith and Taser in the weeks leading up to Smith’s trip to Scottsdale. Smith said being grouped with other agencies that may have cut corners is unfortunate, because Boise spent years vetting all three vendors.
“They lumped us into the sole-source world around the country,” he said. “Yes, we sole-sourced, but it was after much, much review and investigation and due diligence and internal review in our organization, internal review with the purchasing office.”
I am determined that such an episode never occurs again.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter
It’s unclear whether Bieter disciplined Smith or anyone else for the Arizona trip. Neither Smith nor Journee, Bieter’s spokesman, would discuss that topic.
Smith said he never thought the trip would be a problem until The Wall Street Journal requested department emails. Journee said he and Bieter found out about the trip March 23, after the newspaper started asking questions.
Bieter won his first term as mayor in 2003 after campaigning on ethics at City Hall. His predecessor, Brent Coles, saw a mostly successful tenure crumble after he and senior staff members took trips that raised ethical and legal questions. Coles resigned in disgrace, and he and some of his closest aides were convicted of crimes.
“(Bieter) is very attuned to that and as soon as he heard this, he knew that it was a challenge and is determined not to let it happen again,” Journee said.
The mayor’s office is putting together citywide training sessions on ethics for staff members, especially for dealing with vendors, Journee said.
Meanwhile, the Boise Police Department is finalizing its policy for body-worn cameras and training officers on them. The first batch of Taser cameras could be in service by early summer, Smith said.
‘We must remain vigilant’
Here’s Boise Mayor David Bieter’s email to all city employees:
I know that each and every one of you works hard every day to make Boise the most livable city in the country. It is a challenging, and often complex effort that requires our collective dedication and expertise.
One of the most important elements of our city’s celebrated livability is our residents’ trust. Luckily, during our most recent citizen survey, conducted this winter, 85 percent of those surveyed have confidence in our work and 79 percent view the value of our services as fair or better.
But we must remain vigilant. In recent weeks we’ve learned that one of our departments inappropriately accepted a trip from a potential vendor. A senior member from that department went on the trip as part of their due diligence examination of that vendor’s services. Acceptance of this trip was in violation of the City of Boise’s ethical standards and our values as a city. It was not, however, an intentional violation.
Complicating the matter is the fact that the trip was taken in the midst of the city’s decision-making process about the vendor’s services. The vendor in question was subsequently selected as a provider of high profile services to the Boise Police Department. Our decision to select this vendor was sound and remains the right choice for our city and its residents. We stand firmly by that decision.
However, the acceptance of this trip in the midst of our decision process concerns me and members of the Council greatly. It also is likely to color the public’s perception of our contract with this vendor negatively and could impact their trust of our collective hard work. That is unacceptable.
As a result, we are redoubling our efforts to educate city employees about their ethical obligations as public servants. Expect to hear further details from your supervisor about those expectations and greater scrutiny of how we conduct the business of our city. Also, each of you have resources available if any questions ever arise — your department’s assigned attorney and the city’s ethics commission, which has a web page that includes all details of the commission’s previous cases and an ethics handbook.
After 12 years as mayor, I have a deep pride in what you do and what we have accomplished for our city and its residents. I remain as committed as I was on my first day in office to keeping our work on behalf of the residents of Boise above reproach. That is why I am determined that such an episode never occurs again. You, your co-workers and our residents deserve and should expect nothing less.