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Body Cameras And Tasers Rake In Billions For Axon, But They’re No Panacea For Police Violence

The popularity of Axon’s tech soared after the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, but it may be doing more harm than good in protecting people from excessive force.

A patrol officer with the West Valley City, Utah Police Department starts a body camera recording by pressing a button on his chest before he takes a theft report from a construction on March 2, 2015. The West Valley City Police Department has issued 190 Taser Axon Flex body cameras for its sworn officers.Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Last August, Cincinnati police officer Kevin D. Brown tased an 11-year-old Black girl who was suspected of shoplifting food, sparking outrage and a review of the city’s use-of-force policy. This year, Minneapolis resident Clifford Johnson sued the city and two police officers after he was tased during a mental health crisis. “The use of the Taser caused Mr. Johnson to suffer a severe mental breakdown, which required hospitalization for approximately 10 days and then a prolonged period of outpatient treatment and recovery,” the lawsuit said.

Despite such incidents, Taser and body-worn camera manufacturer Axon continues its meteoric rise. Stock of the publicly traded company rose from about $13 per share in May 2014 to approximately $67 per share in late May this year, an increase of 415 percent. In 2018, CEO Rick Smith netted a $246 million compensation package, a sum that’s “about 20 times the median pay” for the CEO of an S&P 500 company, according to the Wall Street Journal. Axon’s ethos is best articulated by Smith himself: “Killing is a technology problem. We kill because, today, it is the most reliable way to stop a threat. But we can imagine better solutions.”

Today, 17,000 of America’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies use Tasers as a “less lethal option.” But the biggest beneficiaries are police themselves, who experience 76 percent fewer injuries when the stun device is available. Tasers do not make policing less lethal for civilians: In February, Reuters published a piece documenting more than 1,000 deaths after the use of a Taser since its introduction 20 years ago, and there’s no evidence that police use of the device led to a reduction in the use of firearms, or reduction in use of force.

Worse, technology like Tasers widens the net of policing nationwide. As Yale law professor Monica Bell wrote in 2017, real reform requires “shrinking the footprint of armed bureaucrats” who are “performing functions that supplant work ideally done by the welfare state and social services.”

Tech doesn’t address underlying police problem

Pervasive police use of force is not a crisis that can be solved with tech alone. Indeed, Tasers often serve as an excuse for police to abandon de-escalation attempts. A 2018 study by Rutgers sociology professor Michael Sierra-Arévalo underscores that technological solutions to excessive force do not address “persistent features of police training and culture that socialize officers into an ‘us versus them’ orientation that frames the public as potential threats instead of fellow citizens and allies.”

Importantly, Sierra-Arévalo discovered a generational gap in police use of Tasers. As one police sergeant told him, “Younger, inexperienced officers … quickly resort to the Taser, and they don’t use a lot of what we call verbal judo or their communication skills.” In interviews, other veteran officers confirmed this phenomenon, noting that rookie eagerness to use Tasers coincides with a sense of self-preservation and an unwillingness to risk physical harm that can be part of de-escalation. Another sergeant put it more succinctly: “These kids coming out of the academy love tasing people. We used to use our hands.”

Because the devices can steer police away from nonviolent conflict resolution tactics, they are a far cry from Axon’s slogan: “Protect life.”

Body cameras best for police, not civilians

Tasers are not the only gadget that Axon has pitched as a solution to police violence. In 2014, demand for Axon’s body cameras soared after the police killing of Michael Brown. Police reformers then began to perceive the cameras as one of the most important tools to end police shootings; that year, President Barack Obama allocated $263 million for body camera purchases and training (though he did publicly warn that the public should not expect cameras to be a “panacea”). By 2016, however, nearly half of American police departments deployed body cameras for at least some of their officers. By February this year, all NYPD officers on patrol were outfitted with cameras, a total of 18,000 devices costing $5.9 million (and that number is expected to grow to $12 million this year).

Evaluations of body cameras align with appraisals of Tasers: The technology has proven benefits for police officers, but far fewer for the policed. A meta-analysis published in March found that officers wearing cameras receive fewer complaints from civilians, and body cameras are not consistently associated with declines in use of force, ticketing, or arrest.

The authors of the meta-analysis suggest that people are deterred from reporting misconduct when they realize they are being recorded, and that officers could be negotiating complaints with complainants or supervisors, “discourag[ing] citizens from pursuing complaints for reasons unrelated to whether the complaint is legitimate.”

They also suggested that increased officer discretion in turning cameras on or off leads to increased use of force. This finding tracks with recent reports about officers turning off their body cameras after they arrived at the scene where Justine Damond was shot by Minneapolis police in 2017. Similarly, in April, Hamden and Yale police officers did not turn on their body cameras before shooting unarmed residents during a traffic stop.

In an email to The Appeal, University of Washington law professor Mary Fan emphasized a need for concrete policies to guide police use of body cameras and dissemination of video evidence, noting that “people have to be able to access body camera videos to be able to use them for accountability and harm prevention efforts.” Indeed, an Associated Press investigation found that police departments “routinely withhold” video evidence of police violence from the public; the video evidence of the January 2015 Burlington, Iowa, police killing Autumn Steele was not released until September 2018.

Body cameras are also turned against the public with alarming frequency, counteracting efforts to rein in the police. Nearly 93 percent of prosecutor offices in jurisdictions with body cameras report they’ve used body camera evidence to prosecute people, whereas just 8.3 percent report they’ve used such evidence to prosecute police.

And cameras raise important privacy and surveillance concerns. More than 52 American law enforcement agencies (including the FBI and the NYPD) use facial recognition technology. Advocates have expressed concern that body camera footage could be used by facial recognition software, and Axon recently filed for a facial recognition patent, though it has publicly insisted that it has no plans to integrate facial recognition with body cameras. San Francisco banned law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in May, and legislation is pending in the California state legislature that would expand that ban.

Reduce police contacts

Instead of purchasing Axon’s sleek tech, police should respond to far fewer “threats.” American cities have become far too comfortable relying on police as a cure-all for social ills. There’s a laundry list of “quality of life offenses” including standing on corners, sleeping in public, fare evasion, graffiti, and panhandling that should never merit a police response.

Crucially, many police killings began with harassment over low-level violations in communities of color: Eric Garner was killed by police who stopped him on suspicion of selling “untaxed” cigarettes, and Ferguson police say Michael Brown was stopped by Officer Darren Wilson because he was “walking down the middle of the street, blocking traffic.” Notably, Ferguson residents contend with a distinct lack of sidewalks. And “Walking While Black,” a 2017 ProPublica investigation of disproportionate police stops of Black pedestrians in Jacksonville, Florida, described how “those who travel on foot in Jacksonville are faced with a disconnected network of sidewalks, which are often in disrepair.“

Instead of merely pushing for video recordings of harmful police interactions, we should demand an end to unnecessary police contact altogether. Communities could instead fund critical services like public transportation or mental health professionals or social workers to respond to behavioral health crises without the potential for police to escalate via arrest or use of force.

American communities plagued by police violence should also push for more stringent use-of-force policies. Campaign Zero’s Use of Force Project found several departmental policies that significantly reduce police violence. There were 25 percent fewer police killings per capita in departments that require comprehensive reporting of use of force and departments that require officers to exhaust all means of conflict resolution before shooting. Department policies banning chokeholds and strangleholds had 22 percent reductions, and departments requiring de-escalation had 15 percent reductions.  

Axon’s disproportionate market growth has been fueled by the mistaken belief that police violence can be eradicated by technology. But instead of protecting people from police, body cameras and Tasers protect police and facilitate coercive, violent law enforcement practices—all at enormous financial and social cost to the public.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem is a criminal justice advocate who also writes about issues including policing and the criminalization of poverty.