Push For Body Cameras Is About Accountability—And Profit
The company TASER stands to make millions off a monopoly on body cameras sold to police departments
On the heels of a string of controversial killings of unarmed black men, calls from protestors, politicians, and even police departments to put body cameras on officers have intensified. But if money talks, the people shouting loudest for body cameras are the lobbyists paid by the company that basically owns the police body camera market: TASER.
TASER, which made its name with its eponymous stun guns, also has a significant technology arm. Called Axon, it makes body cameras, dashboard cameras, and the cloud-based storage system to hold all the footage those cameras capture. (That storage is where the real money is for TASER—cameras are a one-time purchase; the database requires a subscription). And TASER, which claims that 95 percent of the major police forces with body cameras use Axon, has an obvious stake in outfitting as many police departments as possible with its product.
With $75 million worth of federal grants on offer to departments to purchase body cameras, there’s never been a better time to get them. As of March, according to the Wall Street Journal, nearly half of the 50 largest police departments have body cameras, and all but two of those use TASER’s. Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore have chosen TASER for their departments’ cameras. (That doesn’t necessarily mean every officer in those cities is wearing one—Los Angeles, for instance, had to delay rolling out cameras to all officers by the end of 2016 after discovering it would cost $57.6 million over five years to do so.) These deals are worth millions to TASER, which had orders for $135.1 million worth of its Axon products in 2015. That’s 35 times more than it booked in 2012.
At the same time, TASER has also dramatically increased its spending on lobbyists who fight to get Axon cameras and database subscriptions in law enforcement’s hands. According to its SEC filings, between 2014 and 2015, TASER’s spending on “consulting and lobbying services” more than doubled. Taser still spends more money on lobbying for its stun guns than it does for Axon, but that could change soon: Lobbyist spending for Axon nearly tripled in 2015, to $2.94 million, while the stun guns increased by 77 percent, to $4.21 million.
If its most recent quarterly report, released on Tuesday, is anything to go by, that trend will continue in 2016. TASER spent $2.22 million in the first three months of this year, nearly double the $1.17 million it spent during the first three months of 2015.
Since 2013, TASER has spent $312,500 on lobbyists just for New York City, according to city records. It doesn’t yet have a contract with the largest police force in the country but that could soon change. The NYPD is currently field testing body cameras made by TASER and Vievu, a rival company with a fraction of TASER’s market share. If TASER has its way, that fraction will be reduced to nothing: TASER frequently tries to sell its cameras and storage system subscriptions to cities in no-bid contracts, which is good for TASER but not so much for the spirit of competition.
It’d be great to think that Black Lives Matter and similar movements were the driving force in outfitting cops with cameras, and that deaths of people like Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald led to some kind of good, lasting change. But the truth is probably more complicated—an equally or more potent force behind the push for police accountability might just be a big company with an interest less in social justice and more in lining its pockets.