As part of Wednesday’s announcement, the company said it planned to try to equip every police officer in the United States with a body camera.
“We believe these cameras are more than just tools to protect communities and the officers who serve them,” Rick Smith, the company’s chief executive and founder, said in a statement. “They also hold the potential to change police work as we know it, by seamlessly collecting an impartial record and reducing the need for endless paperwork.”
In a trial offer, Taser says it would give every sworn officer a free camera along with online data storage, training and support for a year. After that trial period, the police departments would either send back the cameras or buy them.
The company still plans to sell Tasers, though, which Smith called “one of our flagship products.” According to the company, these devices are used by more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in more than 100 countries — the vast majority of them departments in the United States — and have saved more than 180,000 people from death or serious injury.
The devices have also long been controversial. Smith told the Huffington Post that the Taser name “can be a little polarizing.”
In a 2015 investigation, The Washington Post found that about one person per week died that year in incidents where Tasers were used. While a link between Tasers and those deaths was not clear, Tasers were mentioned in at least a dozen cases as one factor on the autopsy reports or cause-of-death listing.
Tasers work in two ways. In “probe mode,” barbs are shot into a person’s body, delivering a current that locks up the muscles and can incapacitate someone. They can also be used in “drive stun” mode, which involves pressing the device against a person and does not incapacitate them but causes pain that is intended to force compliance.
Research has shown that when used correctly, these devices are generally safe, but police experts and company product warnings have warned about the increasing risk of death or injury if used excessively or in a way that breaks from the company’s guidelines or police department policy.
Tasers have been the source of most of the company’s revenue, according to financial filings. The company reported net sales of $268 million last year, up substantially from $197 million in revenue in 2015.
Most of this came from Taser devices and cartridges, which accounted for $202 million in sales last year, compared to the $65 million from Axon-related cameras and Evidence.com, which allows for storage of footage and other data. The Axon-related sales saw a much bigger jump, nearly doubling from a year earlier, while Taser sales went up by about a quarter.
The company has made no secret of its ambitions beyond the Taser devices, with a spokesman telling The Post in 2015 that wearable technology represented the company’s future.
“Our core goal is to have every officer in the world carry a Taser, deploy an Axon camera and be connected to the Axon network,” the company said in its annual report last year.
In recent years, amid a national focus on policing and protests erupting across the country over officers using deadly force, more and more departments have begun turning to body cameras. According to one estimate, up to half of the country’s 18,000 police departments have officers who wear cameras.
Police officers and the public agree on body cameras, with big majorities telling the Pew Research Center last year that they favor the use of such devices. Activists have pushed for more cameras, arguing that they could increase transparency, though some departments have blocked the release of footage. Experts have expressed concerns about privacy — noting that the cameras may record people not involved in police encounters — as well as the costs involved in both the devices and storing the data that is produced.
Video footage has been a key factor in several of the deadly shootings that turned into national flash points, and more and more shootings are being recorded. Some footage that winds up widely spread across social media and cable news has been recorded by police dashboard cameras and bystander cellphones, but an increasing number of shootings recently have been captured by body-worn cameras.
So far this year, police officers have shot and killed 271 people, according to The Washington Post’s database tracking such incidents. Body cameras were worn in about 27 of these incidents, or about one in 10 shootings, the database shows. In 2016, body cameras captured 138 of 963 shootings, according to the database, nearly double from a year earlier, when 74 of 991 shootings were recorded that way.
Body cameras, like some other recordings, may not necessarily provide full clarity of an incident. In some cases this may be due to things occurring before the recordings begin and out of sight of the officers, while in others it can stem from user error.
One of the country’s highest profile shootings last year — the death of Keith Scott in Charlotte, which sparked intense, sometimes violent demonstrations — was recorded by a body camera. However, this produced incomplete footage because an officer at the scene failed to activate it until after the shooting, so it did not capture audio. Prosecutors said in November they would not charge the officer in that case.