Official Police Business is a weekly column and newsletter by reporter Matt Stroud about new developments in police technology, and the ways technology is changing law enforcement — think body cameras, cell-site simulators, surveillance systems, and electroshock weapons. Sign up to receive OPB in your email every Wednesday at officialpolicebusiness.com, or check for it here at The Verge.
Taser International is in late stages of securing a body camera contract with New York City's immense police department, According to CNBC. With some 36,000 officers in its police force, the NYPD contract would not only help Taser's bottom line. It would also be one of the largest in a string of deals Taser has been aggressively lobbying for in its attempt to become a police body camera monopoly, similar to how it came to dominate the market for so-called "less lethal" police shock weapons.
The NYPD is testing body cameras from Taser and Vievu, the Seattle-based body camera company founded by a former Taser salesman and owned by tactical gear company the Safariland Group. "We've been laser focused on winning the biggest agencies on to our platform," Taser CEO Rick Smith told analysts in the company's earnings call last week. They’ve been successful. According to numbers Smith provided in that earnings call, Taser has won 81 percent of "major cities who have deployed on-officer cameras." How did Taser get there?
In recent years, Taser has focused on building its cloud program, Evidence.com, and getting its body cameras into the hands of as many police chiefs as possible for "pilot programs" like the one in New York City. Often these programs provide body camera equipment at no cost to the participating police department. (In New York, the total cost of the program, paid for by the nonprofit New York City Police Foundation, was $60,000 for cameras from both Taser and Vievu.) Taser’s tactics have also involved providing overt — and ethically questionable — "gifts" to police chiefs and other decision makers overseeing body camera rollouts. These gifts have been reported in Albuquerque, Memphis, Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, and elsewhere, and those reports have likely only scratched the surface.
Emails obtained through public records requests filed by Official Police Business, researcher Alan Hovorka, and others following this issue, show Taser representatives routinely offering police officials free travel and accommodations to Taser events so they can speak about Taser products. Taser-sponsored events have featured keynote speeches from police chiefs representing New Orleans, London (UK), San Leandro, Rialto, and elsewhere. In some cases, police chiefs have been put into the awkward position of having to explain to Taser salesfolk that accepting gifts is a no-no. "Unfortunately because we are in the process of developing a contract with your organization and our ethics regulations, I have to decline this offer," wrote West Valley (Utah) Police Department chief Lee Russo in a 2014 email to a Taser rep. Russo continued: "Hopefully Taser will hold another conference after our contract is in place."
With the free pilot program cameras, the gifts, and the effort that Taser has placed into lobbying chiefs and other politicians for "sole-source" contracts — in which police departments, at Taser's request, avoid putting body camera contracts up for competitive bid — the costs add up.
Smith emphasized the company's revenue growth in last week's earnings call. "For the first time ever, our Axon bookings of $52 million surpassed our TASER Weapons segment revenue of $46 million," he said. But buried in the call was the the revelation that the company's "general and administrative expenses" increased 70.5 percent compared to the last year.
One wonders why the company puts so much expensive effort into gaming the system, because their actual pitch is apparently quite convincing. Last week, OPB talked with a major city's police monitor, whose police force actually did go through a body camera bidding process rather than follow Taser's sole-source request. Of the handful of companies vying for the contract, the monitor — who asked not to be identified — said Taser had by far the best presentation of any company that showed up to bid.
"They were leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else," he said. "They had the best pitch by far. So you gotta wonder what all the sales shenanigans are really about."
A guess? In Taser's view, it's better to be a monopoly than a mere player in the police market.