Axon, formerly TASER, is offering every police department in the U.S. free body cameras for a year. Will the Scottsdale firm change policing – again?

Evidence, Inc.

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: July 2017
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In April, TASER International CEO Rick Smith made the announcement that the 24-year-old Scottsdale-based company, famous for its namesake stun guns used by 97.5 percent of police departments in the country, was changing its name to Axon Enterprise Inc., after its second most popular product, the Axon body-worn camera. 

In a video live-streamed from Washington, D.C., to the Scottsdale headquarters, Smith announced that, in a radical promotion to get the product onto more officers’ vests, the company will be offering free body cameras and cloud-based data storage to every U.S. police department for one year. 

The proposition riled competitors, who’ve criticized the company in the past for engaging in unfair trading practices by hiring retired police chiefs as consultants who, the competition charged, often used their influence to push for no-bid contracts at their old agencies. Already, Axon is the Goliath in the burgeoning body cam industry, used by 37 of the 68 largest police departments in the nation (locally, Axon’s cameras are used by law enforcement in Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Glendale and Peoria, along with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office). The Phoenix P.D., which was approached with Axon’s offer in February, disqualified the company from its bidding process because of those practices, stating through the city attorney, “The offer, if accepted, would undermine our procurement system and seriously damage its credibility.” 

More concerning to civil rights activists, however, is the Orwellian prospect of one public corporation controlling so much of the back-end technology behind the body cameras law enforcement has been procuring. Ever since the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, riots that followed the fatal shooting of 18-year-old black youth Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, body cam demand has been growing – mostly, police chiefs admit, to indemnify their squads against lawsuits in police abuse controversies. That’s resulting in thousands of hours of footage, which can become vital evidence in the case of a lawsuit. But for the most part that footage is not being stored in any police headquarters.

All of the footage from Axon’s body cameras gets uploaded to its private cloud-storage service, Evidence.com, for which Axon charges an annual subscription rate per camera that’s roughly three times the $399 price tag on the hardware. Can such a monetized infrastructure be trusted with sensitive police evidence? 

Steve Tuttle, Axon’s vice president of strategic communications, says individual police agencies retain ownership of their digital evidence while the data is securely stored through Microsoft Azure, the government’s cloud platform of choice, which is compliant with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Security (CJIS) standards. 

“The only people who have access to it are the agencies that own that data,” Tuttle says. “It’s not like we can go into Scottsdale P.D.’s files and grab videos.”

With its recent rebranding and technical innovations, Axon finds itself in a familiar and favorable position: law enforcement economy disruptor. But some of the tweaks its engineers are planning for the body cameras being strapped on more and more cops could also disrupt how policing is done – for better or worse. 

“That’s the power of getting the cameras into the hands of all these customers,” Tuttle says. “It’s a camera that adapts to the future, because it plugs into this system that is always upgrading what it can do on the back end. We’ve also gotten into artificial intelligence, which we’re going to be using to extract more information out of these videos to streamline the officers’ workflows.” 

What might that look like? A company promotional video depicts a patrol cop holding a citizen’s driver’s license up to the camera to instantly scan it and transcribe a report, and a computer operator at the station applying facial recognition software to quickly blur out faces to make the video admissible in court. While Tuttle insists the facial recognition algorithm will only be used to identify faces for blurring, civil liberties advocates worry the tech could one day be tapped for surveillance, à la Minority Report. Seven years ago, in a GQ cover story, Tuttle predicted Axon’s A.I. would eventually help cops instantly access criminal histories, warrants and even perform some predictive analytics. “Every cop will be RoboCop,” he joked. Now he walks that back a bit. “It’s not going to be like the stuff you see on television.”

“Conceptually, it’s probably very doable,” says Michael White, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice who provides support to the U.S. Department of Justice’s body-worn camera funding program. “But ultimately, a chief of police who’s thinking of linking facial recognition with their body cameras will have to think how that will play out with the civil rights folks in the jurisdiction, with the community and prosecutors. There are a lot of other players who will need to weigh in.” 

Since cops are the customers, the policies being adopted regarding body cameras tend to favor protecting the departments, rather than providing transparency. 

Phoenix civil rights activist Jarrett Maupin says the biggest shortcoming of the body camera is the police officer’s ability to willfully ignore it. 

“I have talked with the parents of many people who were killed by police officers in high-stress encounters, and the common denominator in too many of these cases is that the officers were equipped with body cameras but they were not actively using them,” he says. “It looks bad when officers fail to operate their body camera. It makes it look like they have something to hide.”
Axon’s system offers the option to activate sensors that automatically start recording video whenever an officer draws his or her weapon, or even opens the door on the squad car. But few police agencies take advantage of that feature. White says one of the reasons the Phoenix P.D. initially passed on Axon was that its cameras include a buffering feature that, by default, captures the 30 seconds prior to the cop pressing the record button. In contested police shootings, those missing seconds can make or break a law officer’s career.

“More than half of the time, the cameras will reveal that the officers were acting appropriately,” Maupin says. “But there are police who engage in brutality, and the cameras will show that, too. In those instances, the cameras are almost like the eyes of God, watching.”

Or at least the eyes of Axon. “To be the thought leader, you’ve got to break through all these walls, and we’re doing that,” says Tuttle. “We’re here, and we’re going for the future. It’s a big play.”

Illustration by Mirelle Inglefield

 

Illustration by Mirelle Inglefield

Don’t Phase Out the Tase, Bro!

With TASER International’s name change to Axon and its aggressive focus on promoting its body-worn cameras, does that mean the company is cutting back on its production of Taser smart weapons? Has the market for the stun gun become, well, stunted? 

Not exactly. According to the latest data from the market intelligence firm S&P Global, Axon still draws 82 percent of its revenue from its Taser smart weapons business, more than four times the revenue it brings in from Axon cameras and Evidence.com subscriptions combined. 

But Axon is thinking ahead, and its former signature product is clearly approaching market saturation. Simply put, with approximately 17,800 of the 18,250 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. now using Tasers, Axon is running out of police departments to sell its stun guns to. 

Just as Apple does with iPhones (another product that’s by now in the hands of everybody who wants one), today Taser generates much of its revenue from upgrades. Axon encourages agencies to sign up for its automatic upgrade program – basically a five-year contract that charges the agency between $264 to $372 annually to keep its officers armed with the latest models of its stun guns. That keeps departments from switching brands and produces a steady stream of revenue for Axon – even as it’s selling fewer Tasers to new users.

Axon body cameras may be selling at nearly twice the speed of the company’s overall sales growth, according to the company’s latest sales figures. But its Taser business still generates gross margins of 70 percent for the company, compared to only 42 percent margins for the faster-selling body cams. 

“We kept telling people that we’re going to put a Taser on every officer’s belt, and we were laughed at back in the ‘90s,” says spokesperson Steve Tuttle. “Now they’re ubiquitous. Soon, I think our body cameras will be, too.”