The Xtreme Solution
APD squad cars will now have 'no-idle' battery packs sufficient to run new video hardware – but did city officials fall for a system too expensive to buy and too impractical to use?
The night Nathaniel Sanders II was shot by Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana, in May 2009, three officers were on-scene. Each had driven a patrol car to the parking lot of the Walnut Creek apartments where the deadly shooting took place, and each of those cars was equipped with an in-car video recorder. Unfortunately, only one of the three officers actually activated that equipment – meaning that key information about the shooting was lost, not only to police investigators tasked with reviewing the incident, but also to a public skeptical of the official narrative of the night.
In addition to the tragic outcome, it was another in a string of frustrations related to the Austin Police Department's years-long – and up to that time, unsuccessful – ambition to have the city purchase a new digital video system. The system the department had been using was obsolete almost from the day it was purchased. The secondhand VHS recording system, bought from the Texas Department of Public Safety nearly a decade ago, has become increasingly difficult to operate, in part because VHS tapes have become scarce and expensive. Moreover, because it was necessary for officers to activate the system, stops and other incidents were often missing – either because officers thought they'd hit the recording switch but hadn't or because they neglected to hit the switch altogether.
The Sanders shooting – although certainly not the first critical incident in which an officer failed to activate the video system – was the final straw; in April of this year, the city appropriated the final installment for the $15.5 million project to re-equip more than 500 APD patrol cars with a new, largely self-operating digital video system and to create a system for storing the thousands of hours of video it will generate. The system can be manually activated – remotely, even – but also triggers itself to record in a variety of circumstances, including when the doors are opened, when the car reaches a certain speed, and whenever the car strikes something.
The project is an ambitious one, not only because of the mandate to outfit every car with a camera (expected to be completed by this spring), but also because of the remote system the city has created for officers to upload the video into department archives from inside the patrol car at the end of a shift, instead of storing it on a memory card and transporting it by hand to employees tasked with uploading all of those hours of video. The remote system – possibly the most extensive project of its kind in the country, officials say – adds another layer of security and transparency, says Lt. Pat Cochran, who oversees the APD's technology and data control unit. "We are pretty much on the cutting edge with wireless upload," he said.
Wireless upload wasn't initially in the plan for the new system – the plan was to use memory cards, until officials realized the amount of additional labor (and potential for mistakes and lost video) it would create. But the sheer amount of material that officials anticipate – with all the different triggers, a staggering prospect – made that plan seem awkward at best, and in turn spawned the idea for the remote upload.
But that solution presented its own set of challenges, including the question of how to facilitate the video upload without creating additional emissions via hours of added vehicle idling/upload time. "I think we were cognizant that was an issue ... that we didn't want to spew out emissions over that period of time" that it would take to upload the video, says Jeff Knodel, the city's deputy chief financial officer. "From an environmental standpoint, we're aware that any vehicle that idles ... [creates] environmental concerns." Uploads that could, officials estimated, take as many as six hours – from an idling, unoccupied vehicle – would be both a logistical and an environmental problem.
Uploading the video using the car's battery power was not an option. Police vehicles rely heavily on their primary cranking batteries; those batteries are responsible not only for starting the car, but also for running all manner of auxiliary systems – the overhead lights and siren, the in-car computers, the LoJack, alternating low- and high-beam headlights (known as the "wig-wag"), and, eventually, the digital video system. In short, adding to that high load a potentially hours-long upload process would not work – especially considering that police vehicles definitely need to start every time the key is turned. Indeed, APD exhausts an extraordinary number of batteries: On average, a patrol car battery is replaced roughly every year (in contrast to the three- to five-year battery life of a passenger car).
An engineering team was assembled in spring 2010 to consider whether it would be possible to facilitate remote upload while the car is turned off. The group – including employees of the city's Fleet Services Division, Wireless Communications Services Division, APD, and purchasing – put together a request for proposals as part of the city's standard procurement process. After a year's work, city officials this spring signed off on a nearly $1.82 million contract to purchase at least 567 self-contained battery backup units designed and sold as the Independence Package by local company Energy Xtreme. The units are installed in the trunk, and cables connect the encased auxiliary battery to the car's starter and to the alternator for charging; when the car is off, the secondary unit can power electronics for at least four hours. As a consequence, officials say, the Energy Xtreme unit can (in theory) do more than just facilitate uploading video. They believe it can also help APD to reduce its emissions by reducing all manner of idling time; for example, officers would be able to shut off the car while at crime scenes, working traffic, or writing reports on their in-car computers – and still have their emergency lights flashing and their cameras rolling. In short, officials say, it is a system well suited to the city's "green fleet" ambitions.
While he doesn't disagree that the Energy Xtreme solution is, in fact, a good product and certainly powerful enough to handle the video uploads and more, Daniel Lomas, former manager of the garage that services APD vehicles and a member of the city's assembled RFP team, says that he believes the city staff became so enamored of the Energy Xtreme solution that they essentially stacked the deck in order to purchase the company's product. In doing so, Lomas believes they overlooked a cheaper but equally effective in-house solution he designed, and instead massaged the "must-have" requirements written into the RFP so that they would match what Energy Xtreme had to offer.
Lomas says he does not believe that the Energy Xtreme company played any part in what he considers an abuse of city procedures, but he adds that this was not the first time he's seen city employees decide what product they'd like to buy and then use the purchasing process – by law intended to level the playing field and encourage competition – to get the specific outcome they want.
Lomas has since left city employment, and this is not the first time he's publicly criticized city of Austin procedures, most notably the waste tire disposal system that the city eventually had to completely reform. (See "Kicking the Tires at Fleet," July 2, 2010.) But he insists neither that history nor his job change has anything to do with his opinions on the battery procurement process.
City officials – including Purchasing Officer Byron Johnson, APD Cmdr. Troy Gay, and Deputy Chief Information Officer Paul Hopingardner, each responsible for oversight of various aspects of the project – insist Lomas' accusations are mistaken. "For a long time, [the members of the RFP team] were looking at: What is the need? What is the power [needed]? How long does [the solution] have to run?" says Johnson. "So it wasn't just a case of: 'Gee, here's a solution. Let's go out and buy that one.'" In fact, says Johnson, the city sent out more than 200 notices to potential bidders, but in the end received only one response: Energy Xtreme. Anti-idle auxiliary power is simply a "niche" market, officials say, and there isn't anyone else out there doing exactly what Energy Xtreme is doing – and what Austin's increasingly urban police force needs.
Offices on Wheels
Space is at a premium inside a modern police cruiser. There are computers, radios, guns, and digital video equipment, all fitted into the narrow space between the driver's and passenger's seats and the dash and the divider separating the front of the car from the back, where suspects ride. It's a tight fit for officers loaded down with their own equipment, including a gun, a Taser, and a set of handcuffs. And the car functions as the beat cop's office; it's where calls are taken and often where reports are written. It is now also where video information from two cameras (one in front, pointing outward, and one in back, pointing into the car) is recorded and where it is uploaded, wirelessly, for storage by the city. In all, each Crown Victoria cruiser is worth roughly $53,000 – almost half of which is in the form of added-on electronic equipment, says Gay.
This is something that Lomas knows well. For just over three years, he served as the manager of the city's service station across the street from APD's main building on East Eighth Street. So when he was asked to serve as a representative of Fleet on the team assigned to facilitate the wireless video upload, he thought he already had an answer: add a backup power source, a secondary battery installed in the car's trunk to be charged by the vehicle's heavy-duty alternator while the car was on, which would store sufficient energy to handle the video upload with the vehicle powered off.
Lomas says he believes that acquiring a secondary heavy-duty battery would have been the most cost-efficient solution, but some members of the RFP team had a different idea. What started as a simple backup battery system became a more elaborate "anti-idle" system – still essentially a system driven by a secondary battery, but one wired so that it could take over running virtually all of the car's electronics while the car is turned off. In theory, he says, this is a great idea – and one that has many uses across the city's varied fleet. But in police cruisers in particular, he doesn't believe it can actually work as a true anti-idle system – at least not in a place as hot as Austin, where police need to use air conditioning most of the year. Air conditioning runs off the car's motor (as does the heat), so the car must be running for it to work. During the very first meeting of the RFP group, Lomas said he suggested solving the backup power need by wiring up a second battery; he said the members of the group seemed to agree. "My understanding was that [the group] was asking me," he recently recalled, "to come up with a solution."
Lomas began work on an in-house solution – a battery isolated from the car's main battery and wired through the car's starter to run the camera's wireless upload – to meet the digital video project's auxiliary power needs. But as the committee continued to meet (generally once a week), the focus of the project grew in scale. After each meeting, he took the group's decisions about project needs and reworked his design to accommodate them – eventually coming up with a system that could in principle operate as an anti-idle solution to power all of the vehicle's electronic accessories. Still, that didn't seem to be enough; instead, Lomas says he began to suspect that someone within the group (he doesn't know who) had already decided that the city should purchase the Energy Xtreme product and that the specifications for the RFP were being written to target that particular product.
On July 3, 2010, Lomas wrote an email to the group and to a number of APD supervisors to express his concerns. "I must warn everyone that these requirements sure look like if someone is trying to isolate only one [vendor] ... and this could be considered illegal," he wrote. "I'm not sure where these added requirements are coming from, but I think we need to meet again to discuss what it is we are really trying to achieve." If the group were to "insist on continuing in this manner," he concluded, he would have to request that he and another Fleet employee, Gary Ettles, be "withdrawn from this committee." In a written response, Deputy CIO Hopingardner assured Lomas that "whatever we do, it will be legal and follow the purchasing process. In addition, the requirements will not be written to eliminate competition – they will be based on actual need." Indeed, Hopingardner and other supervisors insist that the RFP was crafted only to address project needs and to further the city's commitment to green operations by encouraging APD to turn off its vehicles whenever possible.
The RFP finally went out for bids in August 2010; by the time the proposal period closed in early October, there was only a single bidder, Energy Xtreme. Lomas, who continued to work on an in-house solution, sat with the committee to evaluate the sole bidder's proposal. According to Lomas, Energy Xtreme's solution did not meet the RFP in several key areas – including that the battery be tested for operation in temperatures up to 175 degrees, that the company offer at a minimum a no-fault three-year warranty, and that the company have a secure city of Austin location for installation of the units. In each case (as with several additional features, he says) the evaluation committee agreed that the bid did not satisfy the RFP. "[T]here was a vote ... on every requirement," he says, "and at that point there were at least four different requirements ... they didn't meet at all. There were some where maybe they met, and there were some [that the city] was going to go back to them on [for more information]," he continued. "But there were at least four that they didn't meet at all."
City Purchasing Officer Johnson says there was never any "vote" among the members as Lomas describes. Instead, he says that the committee came away from that meeting with a list of questions for the company about items on which they felt they needed additional information – and that later, when they got that information, it was clear that Energy Xtreme met or exceeded all the city's specifications. "That is incorrect," Johnson says of Lomas' recollection. "There was never a meeting where they took a vote and said, 'Don't award this.' There was a meeting where they said, 'OK, we don't know what this is, [and] here are the questions we need to ask.'"
Nevertheless, Lomas says he continued to raise concerns that the city was skirting purchasing law by ignoring parts of the Energy Xtreme bid that didn't meet the RFP. To Lomas, those compromises fundamentally changed what the city was asking for; under state law, if material changes are made to the RFP, the project must be rebid. Lomas says he told city officials he believed that should happen here. "I couldn't do nothing," he says. "I basically expressed my concerns."
Johnson, an affable expert on purchasing who teaches the topic at Austin Community College, said he believes the changes were minor and did not affect the scope of the project – meaning the city behaved in accordance with the law. "Is it a judgment call as to what is major and minor [in terms of changes]? Yeah, but ... there is flexibility; there's not a hard-and-fast rule," says Johnson. "The answer is, you can't materially change the concept" of the project. And in this case, he says, "nothing changed that was material." Ultimately, the city decided to accept the Energy Xtreme bid.
Blame the Messenger
Nonetheless, Lomas said he was called to a meeting on Dec. 12, 2010, with Johnson and other city supervisors to discuss his concerns about the process. The next day, APD Lt. Pat Cochran sent an email to the committee and project supervisors saying that a decision had been made to put aside the Energy Xtreme bid and to instead use the in-house solution. "There was a high level meeting yesterday," he wrote. "After a lengthy discussion and a lot of questions [Johnson and other supervisors] agreed that [Lomas'] solution would be the way to go." From there, Lomas said he was given a list of cars that would be the first to have his backup power solution installed. According to Lomas, the first tests went well, and the system operated as it should. City officials – including Gay, Hopingardner, and Johnson – disagree. They say that Lomas' system had numerous problems maintaining power during the video upload period. Lomas, however, says that the supposed problems with his system were in effect imposed by members of the project, who made specifications for his solution that they had not required for Energy Xtreme, including the installation on his design of a manually set electronic timer to shut off the backup battery after a given period of time. The Energy Xtreme product, he said, relied on a low-volt cutoff feature, which automatically disengages the battery once its juice drops to a certain level. That's how Lomas initially designed his battery, he says – but was later told by project officials that he should add the secondary timer, which induced failures in his system.
City officials deny that they required anything more or different of Lomas' system than they did of the Energy Xtreme equipment. "To my knowledge, we've never asked anything of either solution that was different," says Hopingardner. "It may just be that [Lomas' system] had to be engineered differently because one [Energy Xtreme's] is self-contained and the other was something that had to be engineered and was engineered on the fly." In sum, Johnson suggests that the problem may be simply that the engineering required to devise a solution is beyond Lomas' skill set. "I think part of [it] was that he may not understand some of the technical pieces of it. He's a fleet person; he's a mechanic type of person; he's not a wireless communications, electrical engineer type of person, and I think maybe he didn't understand that," he says.
Lomas calls that nonsense; the city asked him to serve on the team and to work on an in-house solution precisely because of his expertise in vehicle electronics, which he teaches at ACC to aspiring mechanics. "This is what I do," he says. "This is what I teach: electronics. And because of my expertise, I was asked to join this committee. Why else would they bring me in? Why have me build this whole thing if they didn't think I was qualified?"
Other city sources have suggested that Lomas is upset because he was not able to sell his solution to the city after he left its employment in February to take a full-time teaching job. Lomas denies any profit motive, adding that he offered to help the city complete the installation process for free, even after he'd left his job with Fleet Services. He insists he has been motivated primarily by a desire to help the city achieve its goals – both with the digital video project and more broadly with its green initiatives – in the most cost-effective way.
In the end, Lomas' system would have cost the city roughly half of what it has committed to Energy Xtreme – a total, to outfit every police car, of roughly $912,000. "This isn't about my battery pack," he says. "And if the city wants to use a battery pack like Energy Xtreme's, I think that's perfectly OK. But I think somebody somewhere has to be accountable for that; someone has to say, 'Hey, this is why we chose this.' There are purchasing regulations that must be followed. ... Those regulations have safeguards." If project specifications are mutable, then those regulations are not being adhered to, he says. "Why put [a requirement in the RFP] if it isn't important? Why put it there as a 'must-have'?"
City officials remain adamant not only that nothing improper occurred in the purchasing process, including modifying the RFP to expedite that purchase, but also that in purchasing the Energy Xtreme unit, they have secured the most efficient and cost-effective solution. None of the 125-pound Energy Xtreme units has yet had any problems, and the units have been installed on most of the cars used in Central East Austin, says Hopingardner.
There is at least a chance that the units will save the city money. According to documents provided to the city by Energy Xtreme, its anti-idle unit can save as much as $3,600 in fuel costs per car, per year, and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in excess of 26,800 pounds per vehicle per year – that's presuming, of course, that officers can indeed forgo idling in all Austin weather while the electronics are operating. Whether the units have actually reduced emissions or incurred fuel savings so far is unknown because the units haven't been installed long enough to gauge that difference, officials say. "It's just a process where we need to collect more data," says Deputy CFO Knodel. "We have the underlying assumptions; we just need actual information." And it could be a while before that data is ready. "Maybe [after we] get some weather where you don't have to run the air conditioning or the heater," speculates Johnson.