Who controls the cop cam?

The politics and business behind the push for police cameras


At the end of October this year, 14,000 police officials from around the world gathered in a Chicago conference center for the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference. It was equal parts political convention and trade show, with panels on crisis response splitting time with hundreds of small companies selling bomb-disposal robots and guns.

There were more than a dozen body camera companies on the show floor, but Taser made the biggest splash, constructing a Disney-style amphitheater called the USS Axon Enterprise. The show began with a white-jacketed captain, who announced he had traveled back in time from the year 2055, where lethal force has been eliminated and police are respected and loved by their communities. To explain how to get there, he ran through a history of policing tech. Approaching the present moment, he fell into a kind of disappointed sadness.

"In truth, law enforcement was falling behind," the captain explained.

A female actress materialized on screen as the ship's computer, slightly behind her cue. "Oh dear," she said, exaggerating dismay. "How come?"

"It was because they had no platform," said the captain.

What kind of platform? Well, the kind Taser is selling. Once a simple stun-gun manufacturer, Taser has reinvented itself as an all-in-one law enforcement technology ecosystem: less-lethal weapons linked to cameras that automatically send footage to Taser’s evidence management database, where it can be edited and packaged using Taser’s cloud software tools. It’s a single walled garden, explicitly modeled after Apple’s software controls, extending from the camera lens to the prosecutor’s laptop. And as it grows more popular, that system has put us on the cusp of a fundamental change in the way law enforcement works in America, shaping police departments to the logic of a software startup.

LAPD body camera protest
A protester calls for the release of LAPD body camera footage from the shooting of an unarmed homeless man. (David McNew / Getty Images)

It’s an ambitious pitch, but a well-timed one. There's never been more money or political will behind a technological fix for the problem of police violence. That pressure began with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year, which catalyzed a national movement against police violence. More killings made national news in the following months — Eric Garner in New York, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Sandra Bland in Texas, Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

As activists grasp for ways to hold police accountable, body cameras have emerged as the least controversial option. After the grand jury acquitted the police officer who shot their son, Michael Brown's family called a press conference asking Americans to "join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera," a cause that's since been joined by President Obama and Hillary Clinton. In December, President Obama called for $75 million to fund body camera systems for local police departments, and while Congress hasn't approved the money yet, many police departments aren't waiting. The Department of Justice has helped fund camera systems in 10 different cities, including Chicago itself. The NYPD is soliciting bids for up to 5,000 body cameras, and dozens of smaller cities have put out similar calls.

Suddenly, there’s a lot of money in body cameras. The big players in the US are Taser, Vievu, and Panasonic, all of which are currently vying for the NYPD contract — but even as they compete, the companies have all seen unprecedented growth. In the second quarter of 2015, Taser signed contracts for more than $30 million in sales, driving its value over $1 billion for the first time. Over the summer, Vievu was acquired by a military equipment company called Safariland for an undisclosed amount.

"There was a huge change 18 months ago," said the CEO of the UK-based Reveal, which has been selling police cameras internationally for nearly a decade. "When we arrived last year it went from, 'maybe this is interesting,' to 'we're doing it.' It's just a question of when." That interest has been enough to draw outsiders into the game. On the first day of the conference, Motorola announced that body cameras would be built into its new line of police radios, adding video to one of the most widely used pieces of police equipment in the country.

If Taser has maneuvered its way to the head of the pack, it’s done it by borrowing moves from the consumer technology world. In a pitch repeated over and over at IACP, CEO Rick Smith compared the company's system to the closed platform between iTunes and the iPod. "iTunes solved the problem of how to get music onto your mp3 player," Smith told a crowd of police chiefs in an early morning panel. "We're solving the problem of how to get footage securely off your camera."

The result is a seamless, closed system that reinforces itself with the same persistence as Apple products. Drawing a Taser-brand stun gun can automatically trigger recording a dashboard or body camera, which will have automatically cached footage of the previous two minutes. From there, the footage ports directly to Taser's Evidence.com database, where police can edit it into clips, blur faces, and share footage directly with prosecutors. Another new feature called Axon Live lets a police chief patch in seamlessly to the live feed of any officer currently filming, as close to a literal panopticon as you could create under the circumstances. It's possible to separate out the features — pushing Taser camera footage to a non-Taser storage system, like running iTunes on Windows — but it's always easier not to.

Like iTunes, it's also a very profitable system to run. Taser’s loss leader is hardware rather than software, but the ecosystem lock-in is the same. Once police have bought the hardware, they'll be reliant on Taser to manage and store the terabytes of daily video streaming back from officers. Storing and managing that video requires a monthly fee, which gets higher as you share it across more departments, or purchase features like redaction and simplified editing tools. In an investor meeting, Smith hinted at even more advanced features that could be built on top of all that data, such as recognizing license plates as soon as they're captured by a body camera or dashcam. As the software develops, it's easy to imagine facial recognition being added in the same way. New features can be developed to increase community involvement or broaden surveillance powers, all depending on the customer’s need.

In true Apple fashion, that’s also come with an aggressive marketing push. The company’s biggest announcement at IACP was a $500 dashboard camera (previous models could easily cost $5,000), meant to give Taser an aggressive, disruptive entry into any departments that have held out so far. The company was a platinum sponsor at this year’s IACP (an honor with a $125,000 price tag), and the event was full of eager sales reps meeting with curious chiefs, taking the first steps in the dance of salesmanship. Sometimes that dance has stirred up ethical questions: in Albuquerque and Fort Worth, chiefs have come under fire for accepting lucrative favors from Taser before signing up their departments to ongoing contracts.

Twenty-nine major cities in the US are signed up to some level of Taser’s Axon platform, including San Francisco and Washington, DC, but it’s struggled to land huge departments like New York. Twenty-three other cities are on some kind of trial period with Taser, but it’s hard to say how many will convert. Smith mentioned Oakland and Aurora, Colorado as stubborn Vievu holdouts — but maybe Taser’s new dashcam or new Microsoft Azure partnership would be enough to make them crack.

As with any disruption, the aim is to expand fast, then consolidate slowly. Following Silicon Valley custom, Taser couches that disruption in evangelical terms, more of a calling than a business. "You've got this huge societal issue, and inside of that, our company has this massive transformative purpose," Taser president Luke Larson told me. "We're not about making money. We're about getting our products in the hands of law enforcement to create safer communities."

At the IACP shutting shit down @byp100

A photo posted by Kristiana Rae Colón (@kristiana_af) on

Outside of the convention center on Sunday, protesters from the Black Youth Project formed a sitting circle, their arms linked by long tubes bearing slogans and the names of men and women killed by police. Another squad of protesters blocked the skybridge over the street. Visiting chiefs had to climb beneath their arms to get through. A protestor climbed the flagpole outside, replacing the American flag with a black-and-yellow square bearing the words "unapologetically black," followed by the Black Youth Project's Twitter handle.

The protesters did not mention body cameras, although it had been a central demand for many just a year earlier. Campaign Zero, an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter movement, still lists body cameras as one of its eight demands, although it specifies that the subjects should be able to request not to be filmed and to obtain records after the fact. But there's a growing feeling among many in the movement that video feeds can't protect black communities. "The reality here is that the camera is not pointed at the police. It's pointed at the public," says Malkia Cyril, director of the Center for Media Justice in Oakland. "It won't be implemented for the purposes of accountability. It will be implemented to aid officers in the course of their investigations to gather data. That's what it's for." The real change, Cyril says, comes from bystander video rather than video controlled by the police.

On the second day of the IACP, a new video proved her point. It was cellphone footage from a school in Columbia, South Carolina, taken by three students who watched as a resource officer flipped over a young girl's desk and dragged her across the floor. Within days, it was being shown in a loop on national television.

Most of the campaigns of the last two years have had similar beginnings. Sandra Bland's traffic stop was caught on dashboard video, but most others — Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner — were witnessed through bystanders with phones. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice died in a public park, in view of a city-owned surveillance camera. In the case of Rekia Boyd, killed just a few miles west of IACP, there was only a written report. The policeman who killed her was off-duty.

Would more cameras have mattered? It's easy to see why some activists are skeptical. In 2015, it's hard to believe anyone suffers from a lack of ways to record something. And sold at a trade show like IACP, alongside license plate readers and mobile command centers, body cameras appeal to the logic of escalation. There are guns on the street so police need guns. There are cameras on the street, so police need cameras, too. If police feel besieged by bystander videos, you can imagine the attraction of having their own video feeds, with the footage entirely under their control.

And whichever cameras are used, it’s increasingly clear police will control the footage. In a recent survey of 25 departments with body camera programs, only two made the footage available to individuals filing complaints against the department, and only four had systems to prevent tampering or unauthorized access. There are a number of pending state bills that would clarify policy standards, but it’s unlikely the rules will get any stricter about sharing video. If anything, the current systems will cut off more radical solutions like sharing video outside the police department. "We see that starting to fade," one camera manufacturer told me, referring to citizen access systems. "The more you bring transparency into the process, the less need there is for that."

Current camera systems are only a sliver of what's possible, the sliver that's most compelling in a sales pitch to police departments. In some country, some year in the future, one can imagine police video being shared with community leaders and citizen groups through a platform like the one Taser is building. Distributed data would let citizens literally see through the eyes of police. That wouldn't end the violence more than it would raise the dead, but it would be a chance to build something like trust.

Creating that system now, in Chicago or Los Angeles or Ferguson, seems impossible. Police chiefs are the only customers for these cameras, and they won’t buy something that exposes their own officers. Companies like Taser will only make what they can sell. More than anything, that buying and selling has made body cameras into what they are. Everything else — the activists, the politicians, even the camera itself — has just been part of the pitch.

Loading comments...