Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The stun-gun makers are offering body cameras and data storage for one year to departments nationwide. But before police departments jump at the offer, they should be mindful of the hidden costs of acquiring new technology.
Taser International wants to be known as more than the folks behind those iconic stun guns. Taser, you see, makes more than just Tasers. So they’re changing their name to Axon, after the division aimed at expanding the company’s technology platform. “There are times when we’re talking about our cloud software, our new artificial intelligence team, or wearable sensors and cameras, and there, the Taser name doesn’t feel like it applies,” founder and CEO Rick Smith tells CityLab.
They’re also giving all U.S. police departments a taste of their other public-safety-related products, namely their police body cameras—at least for a year.
The two announcements came Wednesday, when Taser launched a new program that would allow any police department (save the dozen or so that the company has pending proposal requests with) to try out Taser’s body cameras for one year, free of charge. The program would equip every sworn police officer in the agency with an Axon Body 2 camera, and give departments unlimited access to the company’s cloud storage service, Evidence.com. Other offers include camera mounts, docking stations for charging and uploading footage, and access to the Axon Academy online training library.
With the public increasingly wary of law enforcement, a national call to have officers wear body cameras has grown increasingly louder. In Ferguson, Missouri, voters yesterday approved a city charter amendment that would require body camera use by local police while on patrol. Some police departments also support their use, as a means of clearing officers of accusations of wrongdoing. The evidence for whether body cameras are effective in reducing the use of force is still mixed, and the laws surrounding how they’re deployed and when footage is released are even murkier.
But there is a general consensus is that cameras do aid in police transparency. “There’s the promise that this other perspective exists,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “One that is certainly more objective than what you would hear from an officer or a member of the public.”
According to the latest research by the National Institute of Justice, based on 2013 data, only about a quarter of local police department currently use body cameras. A 2016 survey, though, suggests that most are planning to integrate the technology in the near future—two to five years, depending on whom you ask.
For Taser, which already dominates the body camera market, that’s a $1 billion opportunity. The company has, since 2008, dabbled in developing new police equipment other than their signature stun guns; they’ve sold body cameras to agencies in 35 cities (though they have come under fire for their business practices). The Axon Body 2 camera goes for $399 and promises things like high definition and wireless activation. Future versions may even employ AI.
But the camera itself isn’t the company’s main selling point. “Far more important is how you manage the data, because we're talking about evidence here,” Smith says. “Ultimately, this is a big data problem. How do you collect and share this data, how do you monitor how long it’s kept and make sure which officer is complying with your policy? Those are the tools that we've really built out.”
For smaller agencies, just storing video footage securely is hard enough. Video take up massive amount of space, and the cost of buying servers add up. So this evidence, like so much other information, has gone to the cloud: The company’s platform, Evidence.com, has become standard for law enforcement, and subscription to the service—costing between $20 to $80 per officer each month—is the big moneymaker for Taser.
La Vigne imagines that the departments most likely to take advantage of Taser’s trial offer are smaller agencies that haven’t been able to implement body cameras largely because they lack the funding and capacity to store video data. On the one hand, she says, giving them access to a secure and easily accessible cloud storage space could be a tremendous service for both the police force and the public.
“The question quickly becomes, though, once you get them hooked, how much are they going to have to pay, and is that affordable for those smaller agencies?” she says. Agencies can opt out the trial after a year, and the company offers to help them download the data onto a separate server (though La Vigne wonders if agencies can afford an alternative way to store that mountain of data).
La Vigne advises departments to “look under the hood” for the hidden costs that often comes with new technology acquisition. That includes maintenance of data, officer training, and policy development. If body cams are acquired without first having right policies in place, which has been the case for many cities, they’re unlikely to do any good. They can also raise privacy and surveillance concerns.
She warns that it may not be easy to end the program after one year. “You've already set this expectation that you’re adopting the latest technology to enhance accountability, and then having to back off of that because you can't afford to continue? That's almost worse than not doing it at all,” she says. “You can hear the public outcry: ‘Oh you didn't really care about this to begin with, and don't really want to share what is happening.’”
Still, American law enforcement has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to public safety technology, and Taser/Axon aims to be at the forefront of it. Currently, Smith says, much police work is still manual: Officers spend a lot of their time filling out paper work. “We’re focused on automating the flow of information to allow agencies to make better decisions, primarily by audio and video but also through sensors to make sure the camera is recording or to send alerts back to the dispatcher,” he says.
Smith recalls a conversation that he once had with a police chief. Right now, the chief told him, “We work tech; it doesn’t work for us.”