The CEO of TASER thinks that making law enforcement more tech savvy doesn't have to be terrifying

By James Robinson , written on March 4, 2014

From The News Desk

Can the integration of law enforcement and new technologies be empowering, effective, and not smack of dystopia (with overdone allegories to 1984)? Last week, I spotlighted an independent, robotic, data-gathering crime fighter from Knightscope and it seemed the answer was a resounding no. But TASER International, makers of those eponymous stun guns, wants to offer a different take.

Its CEO and co-founder Rick Smith isn’t what you'd call a lovable cultural figure. The Taser electroshock gun his company brought to market two decades ago to aid police in subduing suspects has been dogged by accusations of faulty failsafes and wrongful deaths. Now Smith has set his sights on helping law enforcement modernize in a way that doesn’t tap electromagnetic current to  incapacitate a suspect’s nervous and motor systems.

Since 2008, TASER has been quietly rolling out its AXON wearable video cameras to police officers, placing around 10,000 of them across the U.S., Smith tells me, in departments in Arizona, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Think of them as an episode of Cops with no editing, just raw footage.

The cameras have a 14-hour battery life and, when not recording, are constantly buffering, so if an officer switches it on it can capture the 30 seconds before he pressed go. The cameras are also configured to record in low light. AXON Body is a chest mounted camera retailing for $299, while the AXON Flex, which clips on to glasses, sells for $499. It’s not the only company to sell these -- Seattle-based Vievu offers a similar option -- but TASER is cheaper by a few hundred dollars.

Alongside this, TASER has released its service, which can process and handle this new digital influx of data. Smith wants to do for evidence collection what Steve Jobs did for music with iTunes. Police departments need to get a better handle on these demands, he says, because recording over a span of three years, 250 police officers could capture 155 million gigabytes of data. That's a very big number. To give you an idea, that's double the amount of data that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) -- the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator -- has amassed over the past three years.

That's because video is so much more densely-packed than other forms of data, with a movie being 400,000 times larger than an email. Showing off a penchant for referring to headline technologists, Smith quotes Eric Schmidt’s claim that each day we create as much information globally as existed between the dawn of time and 2003.

The world has changed, but law enforcement agencies some of the least technologically equipped to process this. Smith says that departments tell him that it can take five years to launch a new feature to help in police work, where Facebook can roll out something new in a day. Generally, police departments have old, crumbling technology and no specialist IT presence.

“Police are on a last technology delivery model,” Smith says. “Consumers and business are on the first.” In other words, the people we trust the most -- or don’t trust, depending on your point of view -- to do their jobs well, have some of the most outdated tools. The average person on the street has better gadgets in his pocket than a cop, Smith adds.

But getting video cameras into the chests and glasses of cops is not without its challenges. The New York Patrolmen's Benevolent Association labor union has resisted moves to make police wear cameras. These cameras can aid in capturing police brutality, but can be powerful evidence for defense attorneys to subpoena, while police are wary of cops with cameras, worrying about spying or doctored footage.

Smith brushes off such concerns. He says the response, even from the American Civil Liberties Union, has been positive. “The police who wear these cameras, they’re not secretly surveilling,” he says. “If you’re standing in front of a police officer, there’s no expectation of privacy.”

He adds that in Pennsylvania the company had issues with the two-party consent law, which requires both sides to agree to being recorded, but the state legislature worked with the company to write in an exception. And not that any of this answers to the thorny issue of what could happen if a police officer entered into your home and pressed record.

The demand for such cameras seems to be growing. The Los Angeles Police Department announced in January that it has raised $1.3 million to trial out wearable cameras, working with different brands, including TASER, to find its best fit. In San Francisco last week, there was a call for wearable cameras on police after local officers were found to be stealing from and threatening residents of single occupancy housing.

Both the police and the policed benefit, Smith says. On one hand company-issued studies from Lake Havasu in Arizona and Rialto, California show reductions in police complaints. On the other there's Pittsburgh, where dashboard cameras captured cases of police brutality, and in Florida, where a patrol-car mounted camera caught a police car killing a pedestrian. The officer driving the car was charged but never convicted of manslaughter.

Smith hears blanket concerns about surveillance but says that worried parties have been placated when they see how it works out: “There’s a fear of the police, even in America. Maybe it’s bad actors, or fear of the unknown, but if we bring a camera onto the scene people behave better, even the officers.”

Nevertheless, he may have a tough sell in certain circles. New York residents have expressed distrust that police could tamper with the footage, suspicions that actually came true in Birmingham, Alabama when a policeman was caught editing  footage of him beating a suspect. Sometimes subpoenaed footage has simply disappeared. Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean reported in 2010 that 1,300 dashboard camera videos had been erased completely by the city police department.

Police wielding video cameras is not a new phenomenon. The technology has been available in rudimentary form since the 1960s, but the rising issues of drunk driving in the 1980s and drug wars in the 1990s bought some attention to the good police cameras could do. Still, according to the Department of Justice, in 2000 few police cars had cameras but as concerns about racial profiling grew and technology improved 72 percent of State police vehicles had a camera in them by 2003. The Department of Justice found the cameras to be most useful in traffic violations, pursuits and assaults, but of less use in other types of cases.

But last year the New York Police Department and the police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, resisted a judge's order to install these wearable cameras, claiming they would be one more thing to carry and that the money could better spent adding more officers and providing better training.

Combine this ethical and practical quagmire with the security challenges of police departments accessing a network of collected video evidence in the cloud and the situation gets even dicier. With all the hacking and government-sponsored snooping going on, no piece of data is secure from prying eyes.

Smith claims that where information is stored is less important than respecting evidentiary chain of custody, creating user based roles, and permissions and appropriate security practices and protocols. That said, he admits, “No one is safe from a physical or information-based cyber attack. I do think though, that a combination of tech-savvy firms providing an integrated cloud solution will be better able to protect and help police than 18,000 law enforcement departments with no IT staff and all the ensuing vulnerabilities.”

Perhaps. What is certainly true, though, is that the cameras are coming, and they will, overall, provide greater transparency. Who benefits most remains to be seen, other than Smith, who will likely come out ahead no matter what.