The big busi­ness of body cams

Ef­forts to bring more trans­parency to law en­force­ment have un­leashed a new, high-stakes mar­ket for po­lice tech­nol­ogy.

Fast Company - - Contents - By Alex Paster­nack Il­lus­tra­tions by Gi­a­coma Bag­nara

A na­tion­wide call for po­lice trans­parency has com­pa­nies scram­bling for a piece of the $1 bil­lion op­por­tu­nity.

On a gray af­ter­noon in Fe­bru­ary, 18-year-old Cur­tis Deal was shot to death by a Bal­ti­more de­tec­tive. Po­lice said Deal had darted away and, af­ter a foot chase, turned and raised a hand­gun to­ward the un­der­cover of­fi­cer, who re­sponded with a vol­ley of gun­fire. Two months later, on a Satur­day night in the Dal­las sub­urb of Balch Springs, an of­fi­cer shot and killed 15-year-old Jor­dan Ed­wards, a pas­sen­ger in a car that the of­fi­cer said was back­ing to­ward him ag­gres­sively.

Nor­mally, of­fi­cial ac­counts of po­lice fa­tally shoot­ing black teenagers rest largely on the words of the of­fi­cers in­volved, a fraught propo­si­tion when pub­lic trust of law en­force­ment is lower than it’s been in decades. But be­cause these two of­fi­cers were wear­ing body cam­eras—and both had re­mem­bered to ac­ti­vate them—they weren’t the only wit­nesses.

In the case of Deal, the body­cam video backed up the of­fi­cer’s ac­count. But with Ed­wards, the record­ing re­vealed some­thing dif­fer­ent: The car car­ry­ing him was driv­ing away when the po­lice­man opened fire. The of­fi­cer was charged with mur­der.

These vi­tal records of vi­o­lent en­coun­ters have be­come more and more com­mon as po­lice de­part­ments from Bal­ti­more to Balch Springs strap on body cam­eras, part of an ef­fort to bring new trans­parency to their in­ter­ac­tions with the pub­lic. Urged on by cit­i­zen ac­tivists ea­ger for ac­count­abil­ity—and sup­ported by ini­tial fund­ing from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion—this

em­brace of video rep­re­sents one of the fastest tech­no­log­i­cal up­grades in polic­ing his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, 95% of the coun­try’s po­lice de­part­ments are plan­ning to im­ple­ment body cam­eras; 20% al­ready have.

That’s cat­alyzed a gold rush, with star­tups, legacy equip­ment sup­pli­ers, and tech com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft and Ama­zon all jostling for share of a mar­ket that some es­ti­mate could be worth more than a bil­lion dol­lars by 2020 (see side­bar). And no com­pany is in a bet­ter po­si­tion than Axon, which makes the cam­eras worn in Bal­ti­more and most of the coun­try’s largest cities—and, un­til re­cently, was known as Taser.

Though the two-decade-old firm still pro­duces al­most all of the world’s po­lice stun guns, its name change, an­nounced in April, sig­nals an am­bi­tion to dom­i­nate po­lice video as well. In 2016, the com­pany pulled in $268 mil­lion in rev­enue; its cam­era ser­vices were the fastest­grow­ing seg­ment, leap­ing 85% to hit $65 mil­lion in sales, thanks to new con­tracts with agen­cies such as the Los An­ge­les Po­lice De­part­ment, which has pur­chased more than 7,000 de­vices. “We don’t see any rea­son why you should send a po­lice of­fi­cer on the street with a gun and no body cam­era,” says CEO Rick Smith, who en­gi­neered the name change for the com­pany he founded. And as this new arm of his busi­ness grows, so does its im­pact on the fu­ture of polic­ing.

Taser was an early mover into body cam­eras. It launched its first de­vice and its Ev­i­dence.com videostor­age plat­form back in 2009. But it took a na­tional cri­sis for the prod­ucts to gain trac­tion: a se­ries of high-pro­file deaths—many of them un­armed black men—at the hands of po­lice in 2014. In re­sponse, the Jus­tice De­part­ment seeded $41 mil­lion in grants to go to body cam­eras, and po­lice de­part­ments be­gan gear­ing up.

To­day, Axon sells cam­eras to more than half of the coun­try’s 69 ma­jor law-en­force­ment agen­cies, along with cloud stor­age and tools to an­a­lyze and share videos. The busi­ness of cam­eras is big­ger than it ap­pears: The hard­ware is a gate­way to even more lu­cra­tive sub­scrip­tions. Axon’s new­est cam­era costs $399; a sub­scrip­tion for Ev­i­dence.com’s soft­ware and stor­age can run as much as $79 per of­fi­cer per month.

Axon’s pitch is ag­gres­sive, and ri­vals have ac­cused the com­pany of anti-com­pet­i­tive tac­tics, in­clud­ing cul­ti­vat­ing fi­nan­cial ties with po­lice of­fi­cials and coach­ing de­part­ments on how to use no-bid con­tracts. Last fall, both New York and Phoenix had mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar cam­era deals in the works with Vievu, a com­pany founded by a for­mer Taser ex­ec­u­tive. Axon re­sponded by ac­cus­ing Vievu of ped­dling faulty de­vices— and of­fered free cam­eras to both cities. The prod­ucts were de­clined, but af­ter a new po­lice chief in Phoenix re­opened bid­ding for its con­tract, Vievu sued Axon for in­ter­fer­ence.

Smith, bat­tle-hard­ened from fend­ing off decades’ worth of wrong­ful-death law­suits over his com­pany’s weapons, barely flinched. He coun­ter­sued, and then took his cam­era-give­away scheme na­tional, of­fer­ing a year­long trial to ev­ery of­fi­cer in the coun­try—a bold move aimed at draw­ing more po­lice into Axon’s ecosys­tem.

The com­pany’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Taser stun guns hasn’t ex­actly

Axon CEO Rick Smith has been care­ful to avoid po­si­tion­ing his cam­eras as ve­hi­cles for call­ing out— or cash­ing in on— po­lice bru­tal­ity.

en­deared it to the pub­lic. It’s a dif­fer­ent story with law en­force­ment. “Po­lice, frankly, love the com­pany,” says Hadi Par­tovi, a Sil­i­con Val­ley in­vestor and co­founder of Code.org who sits on Axon’s board. Smith has been care­ful to avoid po­si­tion­ing his cam­eras as ve­hi­cles for call­ing out—or cash­ing in on—po­lice bru­tal­ity. In­stead, he cites stud­ies like one from 2016 con­ducted by re­searchers at Cam­bridge Univer­sity that links body-cam us­age to a 93% re­duc­tion in com­plaints against of­fi­cers. Out­comes like this, Smith ar­gues, can save de­part­ments mil­lions of dol­lars in le­gal fees and lost of­fi­cer hours each year.

Cap­tur­ing and man­ag­ing moun­tains of video, how­ever, does get ex­pen­sive—a re­al­iza­tion that has led some agen­cies to pause their body-cam­era pro­grams. (A de­part­ment with 200 cam­eras could spend as much as $15,000 a month on stor­age and anal­y­sis.) Smith says Axon’s soft­ware can change those fi­nan­cials, and he’s em­bed­ding it with al­go­rithms that will even­tu­ally au­to­mate the la­bo­ri­ous process of watch­ing, tag­ging, tran­scrib­ing, and redact­ing videos. Ear­lier this year, he bought an AI startup to help bol­ster this vi­sion, and touts pos­si­ble fu­ture crime-fight­ing tools like “pre­dic­tive polic­ing” and real-time face recog­ni­tion. (Other cam­era com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Vievu, are also em­brac­ing AI.) A 2014 re­port from the Jus­tice De­part­ment ex­pressed con­cern over such tech­nol­ogy, but Smith sees it as in­evitable. If a cam­era were able to iden­tify a “known cop killer,” he says, “we can’t ex­pect an of­fi­cer to not get that alert.”

So far, dis­cus­sions of how body cam­eras should be de­ployed— in­clud­ing what kind of en­coun­ters of­fi­cers should record and how they an­a­lyze the video af­ter­ward—have taken place largely out of the pub­lic eye. Axon, too, is happy to leave these ques­tions to its part­ner po­lice de­part­ments, a fact that civil-rights ad­vo­cates find trou­bling. “These are com­pa­nies whose busi­ness is some­thing that’s very con­nected to the pub­lic in­ter­est,” says Barry Friedman, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Polic­ing Project at NYU School of Law. “But they have a con­cep­tion of pub­lic safety that’s been de­vel­oped [by work­ing with and in] law en­force­ment.” If cam­eras are be­ing ac­quired on be­half of, and even­tu­ally paid for by, cit­i­zens, shouldn’t they have more in­put in the tech­nol­ogy’s de­vel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment?

One of the big­gest un­re­solved ques­tions is when po­lice should share videos with the pub­lic. In Bal­ti­more, where trust of cops is brit­tle, po­lice up­loaded video of Cur­tis Deal’s shoot­ing to their Youtube chan­nel within 48 hours, eas­ing ten­sions in the city. But many con­tro­ver­sial record­ings—like the one that cap­tured the shoot­ing of Jor­dan Ed­wards in Texas—are kept pri­vate, frus­trat­ing cit­i­zen ac­tivists.

Seat­tle—home to both Axon and Vievu—and its po­lice union are still wrestling with these is­sues ahead of a long-awaited roll­out of Axon cam­eras. Kath­leen O’toole, the city’s re­form-fo­cused po­lice chief, says cam­eras will give the pub­lic a valu­able per­spec­tive on po­lice work. But she in­sists that body cams shouldn’t eclipse broader in­vest­ments in bet­ter train­ing and com­mu­nity out­reach. “We have to be re­al­is­tic,” she says. “Body cam­eras are not go­ing to be a panacea.”

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