PHOENIX — Taser International Inc. announced Wednesday that it is offering a free body camera to every police officer in the country for a year, making a bold bet that law-enforcement agencies will choose the company's products if given a trial.
The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company will provide the software and hardware needed to use the cameras for a year to any department not already involved in a public bidding process for body cameras. The company is encouraging its competitors to make the same offer.
Taser, which was founded in 1993, is also officially changing its name to Axon, the name of its signature body camera. The change reflects the variety of technology it offers, which has grown beyond the original stun guns for which it is named, officials said.
The offer includes the use of an "Axon Body 2" camera and license to use the company's evidence-collecting website, which can store and organize video from multiple officers and other information pertinent to a criminal case.
The Axon Body 2 chest-mounted cameras retail for about $400, and licensing for the website and data storage can cost $15 to $90 a month depending on the features a police department wants to activate, the company said.
The company earns more revenue in the long run from managing the substantial quantities of data collected by the cameras than from the hardware itself.
"The offer is legitimate," company founder and CEO Rick Smith said. "There is zero cost. Agencies can try this with all their officers and not pay us a dime."
Body-camera sales grow across country
Smith said the company's offer will allow officers to do their job more effectively and reduce the amount of time officers spend filling out police reports. The cameras collect an "impartial" record, he said.
The company's camera line was launched in 2008, but interest spiked after a series of high-profile police shootings, including the death of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and fatal shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota in 2016. Those events were followed by protests and then shootings of police officers, including two killed in New York in 2014 and five in Dallas in 2016, in which the gunmen said they acted in retaliation for police shootings.
"Tension between the police and the public is at historic levels," Smith said. "I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime ... In that environment of distrust, body cameras make a huge difference. Police officers have proof of what they were facing when they did what they did."
Axon, which reported a profit of $17.3 million last year, still sells more Taser weapons than body cameras, but body-camera sales are growing much faster. The company reported it sold about $203 million in Taser weapons last year, up 25% from 2015. It sold about $66 million in Axon equipment and software licenses in 2016, up 85% year over year.
Axon: Test our equipment in the field
Axon's sales team has been aggressively marketing its body-worn camera technology and its digital-storage systems to local governments, often in fierce competition with other providers.
Its new marketing tactic looks to sidestep the traditional procurement process in many cities, where major buying decisions are made by city finance departments.
Axon executives say using their devices in field trials is the best way to judge how well the system works.
Smith said his company wins "nearly 100%" of public bidding processes where officers actually test the equipment.
He expressed frustration that bidding procedures often don't put the best equipment in officers' hands.
"Everyone who sells to the government has lobbyists and procurement specialists," he said. "Police officers will tell you the technology they have at work is awful and has a horrible user experience. The way companies win government contracts has been who can navigate the purchasing bureaucracy. We think that is something that has to change."
"We've got to help our customers get to field trials so that they are actually deploying our products in the field," Smith told investors during a February teleconference. "That is where the game changes ... You can't buy sophisticated technology with procurement processes that were built 20 to 30 years ago for buying belts and holsters and that sort of stuff."
Controversy in Phoenix bidding process
Wednesday’s offer is an expanded version of one company officials made earlier this year to big-city police departments.
In Phoenix, the proposal was not well received. Taser already had been disqualified from a bid process after its employees improperly reached out to city officials. The offer letter for free cameras, which was sent in January to Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, was seen by Phoenix officials as an unethical attempt to circumvent the process.
“The offer, if accepted, would undermine our procurement system and seriously damage its credibility,” Phoenix City Attorney Brad Holm responded to Taser in a February letter. “Please refrain from submitting anything similar to the offer again.”
At least one of Taser’s body-camera rivals sued the company earlier this year as a result of its aggressive lobbying.
VieVu, the company that outfits Phoenix officers with body cameras for a pilot program, had won a lucrative contract with the city late last year. That deal was scrapped, and city officials said a rebid was planned to allow Williams, the new Phoenix police chief, a say in the process. Attorneys for VieVu say Taser is to blame, alleging improper communications between Taser and Phoenix officials.
Taser filed a countersuit, claiming that VieVu had won the initial bid based on false advertising claims.
Dominant provider in region's market
Axon’s body cameras have a stronghold in the Phoenix area, with the company's client roster including Mesa, Scottsdale, Chandler, Glendale, Peoria, Tempe and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
Axon also has high-profile customers across the country. The company reports that it already serves 36 of the 68 largest police departments in the nation with cameras, including the Los Angeles Police Department, its largest domestic customer.
In October, the company announced 22,000 members of the London Metropolitan Police would use its body cameras after a trial period, making the city in Great Britain the largest Axon customer.
Joaquin Enriquez, a public-information officer at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies' experiences with the product have been generally positive.
“Overall feedback is that video is good, the system is user-friendly and for the most part the audio is really good as well,” he said.
Police reports of the future: Mostly video?
Axon officials predict case files increasingly will move away from handwritten or typed reports to collections of video that can be annotated, shared with prosecuting attorneys and redacted for privacy concerns.
Axon recently acquired artificial-intelligence developers to help facilitate the move to video records that can easily be managed.
Smith said the process will save officers time, allowing them to spend more of their workday in the community.
"All this time police are spending writing reports is fairly useless," he said. "When you have a critical case, nobody believes the report anyways."
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