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.
Within hours of Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of Baton Rouge police, cellphone video of the shooting had been posted and protests begun. But more than a day and a half later, the body camera footage from the incident still hadn’t emerged. Around that time, Louisiana State Rep. Denise Marcelle told local news station WAFB that "she was told by Baton Rouge Police Chief [Carl] Dabadie [that] the body cameras worn by both officers fell off during the incident and do not show the shooting."
Let’s assume you believe that’s true. (It’s very possible you don’t.) This would be a very big failure for technology that was supposed to help in exactly these scenarios. Apparently both officers were wearing cameras? And both of the cameras fell off? And neither of the cameras recorded any usable footage? Of a police killing that’s roiling the entire nation?
The body cameras used by Baton Rouge police failed to work
It’s no surprise then that when Popular Science published a story saying that the company behind the camera was likely Taser International, based on a January article from a Baton Rouge newspaper, Taser’s PR team went into high gear. About five hours later, Taser had a scoop: "@PopSci is WRONG! Per BRPD: ‘No Taser cameras were, at the time of the shooting, deployed and there are none deployed now.’" The Baton Rouge Police Department had issued a statement specifically to Taser, clarifying that none of its cameras had failed.
The man behind Taser’s corporate Twitter account, Steve Tuttle, then spent hours correcting as many Twitter users as possible about PopSci’s misconception: Taser wasn’t behind the faulty body cameras. The company behind them was, well, Tuttle wouldn’t say which company it was. (It was Motorola.) But one thing was for sure: Taser certainly was not.
Never mind that — as readers of Official Police Business will find unsurprising — the officers who shot Sterling had in fact tried to use a Taser on him, which proved useless. (Eighty-two percent of Taser’s nearly $200 million in net sales last year came from its Taser weapons segment; only 18 percent came from the Axon body camera division.) Never mind that Sterling’s killing was only one of several deadly police incidents in recent days — none of which were helped by officers wearing body cameras. The market reacted with cheers regardless.
Taser’s NASDAQ-traded stock jumped nearly 17 percent
Between July 5th and July 11th, Taser’s NASDAQ-traded stock jumped nearly 17 percent. And Taser wasn’t alone. The stock price of one of its body camera competitors, Digital Ally, jumped 68 percent between July 7th and July 8th. Even the stock value of Motorola — the company that provided the evidently useless body cameras to Baton Rouge Police Department — jumped 4 percent between July 6th and July 11th. Of course, body cameras are a very small part of Motorola's $11.8 billion business. But it seems telling that even the stock of the company selling an utterly ineffective body camera suffered no negative consequences.
It’s tough to imagine anyone or anything emerging victorious from a seven-day stretch of violence like the one we’ve just seen: Alton Sterling was killed by two white cops in Baton Rouge. Philando Castile was shot to death by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota in front of his girlfriend and his child. Five police officers were killed by 25-year-old sniper Micah Xavier Johnson in Dallas, Texas. And there were others. But if anyone or any group can be considered a winner amid all this tragedy and chaos, it’s the companies that sell gear to cops. In the same way that gun sales and stock values for public firearm manufacturers rise after mass shootings, cop company stocks rise in the wake of police-involved tragedies. And that occurs despite the fact that some of these events are glaring examples of their gear failing to work properly.
Cop company stocks rise in the wake of police-involved tragedies
I wasn’t completely convinced of this until Monday morning. Up until that point, the maker of the robot used to kill the Dallas sniper hadn’t yet been revealed. What this robot had been used to do was unprecedented in the United States. These wheeled, remote-controlled robots are typically used to dispose of bombs. Indeed, Tim Trainer, vice president of sales at Endeavor Robotics — a maker of bomb disposal robots — told CNN: "Our whole purpose is to keep people at a safe distance from hazardous conditions."
But in Dallas, when police were faced with circumstances in which they would’ve had to put themselves in harm’s way, they concocted a plan to strap C4 explosives to a robot’s arm, detonating it to kill Johnson. On Monday, the robot and its maker were revealed: it was Northrup Grumman and its Remotec Andros UGV. Northrup’s stock price peaked on Monday at $223.80 per share — higher than it’s ever been, and up 5 percent since closing two weeks earlier at $212.89.
When there’s chaos in policing, it’s time to invest
It seems the markets have spoken: when there’s chaos in policing, it’s time to invest. Even in cases where tech failed, more tech is the answer.
There’s a weird logic to this. In the wake of these tragedies, people demand solutions — anything to quell the violence and uncertainty. While changing training, policies, and procedures is fraught and difficult work, companies such as Taser International and Motorola and Northrup Grumman offer a different path: a promise of something new and improved that police departments can buy that can help to make things right again. It doesn’t matter that body cameras failed in Baton Rouge. It doesn’t matter that a Taser didn’t do what it was meant to do. What matters is that, with a little American ingenuity, these things might be perfected, and maybe next time they’ll work. Maybe it’s time to take stock.