TASER International is monopolizing the police body-cam industry

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Known for its less-lethal weapons, TASER International is taking over the body-cam market.

Scottsdale, Arizona-based weapons company TASER International is in late stages of securing a body-camera contract with New York City's immense police department. According to CNBC, 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. And they've won contracts with those big agencies. According to numbers Smith provided in that earnings call, TASER has won 81 percent of "major cities who have deployed on-officer cameras."

With some 36,000 officers in its police force, landing the NYPD's body-camera contract would only help TASER's bottom line. Not only would it divert concerns about TASER's eyebrow-raising sales strategies—and its perhaps prohibitively expensive cost estimates—in Los Angeles. It would also help police departments to forget that TASER is in the midst of a bribery and patent infringement lawsuit with competitor Digital Ally. And it would reiterate a message that most police departments are already receiving: that TASER International is becoming a police body-camera monopoly in the same way that its conducted electrical weapons monopolize the market for so-called "less lethal" police shock weapons.

How did TASER get there?

TASER's tactics in recent years have focused on building its cloud program via 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. Its 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.

In response to public records requests made by OPB, OPB researcher Alan Hovorka, and others following this issue, emails from TASER representatives to police officials routinely offer to pay for flights and accommodations to TASER events in exchange for police officials speaking about TASER products. TASER-sponsored events have featured keynote speeches from police chiefs representing New Orleans, London, San Leandro, Rialto, and elsewhere. Supposed ACLU representatives have even taken the stage at TASER events. And 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 sample pilot program cameras, the gifting shenanigans, and the effort that TASER has placed into lobbying for anticompetitive "sole-source" contracts—in which police departments avoid putting their body camera contracts up for competitive bid, at TASER's request—and other expenses, the costs add up.

TASER CEO Rick 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. OPB talked with a major city's police monitor last week 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.

OFFICIAL POLICE BUSINESS is a weekly column and newsletter by reporter Matt Stroud about new developments in police technology, and the way that 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 Daily Dot. Stroud is available at matt@officialpolicebusiness.com or on Twitter @MattStroud.

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