Axon, the company formerly known as Taser International, is now offering body cameras to any police officer across the U.S. for free. It's only for a year, but Axon is hoping the new push will get more police departments on board with the technology.
Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Steve Tuttle, one of the founding members of the company, and Elizabeth Joh (@elizabeth_joh), a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who has concerns about Axon's offer.
Interview Highlights: Steve Tuttle
On the reaction to the offer
"So far it's been tremendous. Lots of accolades from various chiefs of police of varying sizes, particularly the big ones that know that this is an expensive proposition. But just as importantly from the small teams out there that really want access to try these cameras for a year and really kick the tires and see what this thing can do."
On the reason for the offer
"21st century policing recommendations that came recently have really applauded the effects of body worn cameras. Where it's been effective is when it's been put on all the patrol officers, and we're seeing less use of force and less complaints against officers. So given the transparency issues going on, this is just a tremendous value proposition for the agencies. But they have to field test it to really know the value of it."
On how common body cameras are now
"Roughly one in five police officers in the United States have body worn cameras. We happen to have 36 of the 68 largest cities in America that deploy them. But we know that more need them, and if we're putting a gun on every officer, why not put a camera on them as well."
On the critics of the company and its control of the information from the cameras
"Well, that actually couldn't be further from the truth. We simply store our videos in Microsoft Dasher, and that's a tier one cloud provider using our software code. They actually control the destiny of all of their evidence because they actually own it by law.
"We don't have access to it unless they give us permission to go into certain areas. Now, we do monitor performance, which anybody would be doing on any type of cloud service to make sure the systems are up and running. But we would have to get explicit information just to check certain files for them. And so they literally control that information on their own. It's just like getting Windows and Microsoft let's you use those Word documents any way you want to and you control those documents."
On police agency policies around when the cameras are used
"It comes down to having good policies that are thoughtful and pragmatic and have good oversight. We've seen instances where we can actually leverage the technology to have these cameras turn on as well. So we have certain systems called Axon Signal. That allows for cameras to be notified that there's an event occurring and the cameras would then turn on. But good policies will tell you when to turn those cameras on. And particularly, it's when there's public interaction or you get a radio call."
On whether body cameras could be used in other professions
"You're looking at private security, but we've also seem some calls for this for firemen. To show up on scene, playback the video and sometimes they can see where fires are emanating from. We will be getting into more public safety, but really not going too far out of our lanes. We're really hyper-focused on staying with public safety in the law enforcement, military and possibly into fire."
Interview Highlights: Elizabeth Joh
On her qualms about one company giving out these cameras
"I wouldn't say I'm not a big fan, but I think that I'm skeptical about it. So, let's step back for a moment. Go back to August 2014 when we had the protests in Ferguson. So, a lot of people think, 'Well what do we do to make sure we can address some of the issues of policing that we saw there and the protests after the shooting of Mike Brown?' One thought was we could have body cameras as a tool of accountability to make sure that we would have a record of what happened. Lots of police departments wanted embrace this idea that body cameras can be a good tool.
"The issue here is that a tool like a body camera is only as accountable as the policies around it and the way in which the product is actually designed. So that means two things. On the guideline or policy level, it really depends on what the laws and the departmental guidelines say about it. So, we know that states have been slowly trying to come up with ways of regulating police body cameras, but there's variation all over the map. Laws that deal with everything from in what situation should police use their body cameras, how long should the data be stored, who can have access to the data. These are all fundamental questions that local jurisdictions have had a slow start to addressing in any systematic way.
"But a hidden part of this is that actually the companies that make the products — the body cameras themselves — have a huge influence over how that product is actually used by the police. Because after all, think of it this way: When it comes to a police body camera, police departments are customers. They're not in the driver's seat. What really matters is what are the design features, not just of the body camera itself, but the more important thing the storage of the data itself, who has access to it, what kind of software's going to be used for that data."
On her concerns about what will be done with the data
"First of all, one of the things, my understanding is that the CEO of Taser/Axon has announced that one of the things that he'd like to see in future uses of body cameras technology is facial recognition software. That's a really good example because communities around the country have expressed concern that first of all, we thought the police body camera was going to be a tool of police accountability. Is it also turning into a tool of police surveillance? If that's the case, who will make these decisions?
"The problem here is that when there's one company that's dominant and that one company already makes that technological decision for you, well that's something that is done not in a democratic fashion, but a private company making that choice. That's the kind of thing that should trouble us because we want local communities to have a say in how these kinds new technologies — let's call them surveillance technologies — are being used."
On whether she'd rather have no body camera
"I'm not sure that I'm saying that. What I am saying is I think we really need to have a conversation about why are we having this swift adoption, on the one hand, without enough prior regulation in place? And number two, why isn't there more competition in the private body camera market? And here's the case where the first mover is critical. I'll ask you a question and that is: Can you name any other stun gun maker than Taser? You probably can't. So the first mover here is really critical. It seems to me highly unlikely that if a police department adopts Axon cameras for this free offer, is there really any chance they're going to adopt another company later, another company's body cameras? It seems highly unlikely here. The problem, furthermore, is that Taser is a private company. They're not beholden to the local communities that are served by local police departments. If you're a concerned citizen, you want to find out something about what Taser's doing, what new technologies are they going to apply to the data, how can you find out? They don't have to tell you. They're not public entities that are subject to state records laws. That kind of secrecy is very much against the idea that body cameras were all about a couple of years ago when this could have been a very promising tool. It still can be, but it's rolling out in circumstances that I think are very troubling."
This segment aired on April 12, 2017.
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