The fatal shooting of Michael Brown has strengthened calls to have all police officers wear cameras at all times -- an idea that has given a serious boost to firms that produce these cameras for police use. The stock for Taser, the stun-gun maker that also makes a line of wearable cameras for police officers, has jumped as much as 30 percent since the events in Ferguson first gained national media attention. VieVu, a Seattle-based firm, has seen requests from police departments for free trials of its wearable camera jump 70 percent in just the past few days, according to company chief executive Steve Lovell.
When an amateur photographer captured Rodney King's beating in 1991, the tape was a media sensation -- not only because of what it showed, but also because it demonstrated the power having a camcorder in hand. Now smartphone or GoPro footage from bystanders are the norm in news reports. But the idea of having police wearing these pager-sized body cameras has been slower to gain traction. That's despite support from a wide range of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), who say camera programs can significantly improve police department operations.
Cost often keeps departments from deploying these cameras, which are priced at between $600 and $900 each, said VieVu's Lovell. But growing evidence from police department trials around the world indicates that camera footage helps police resolve complaints. In complaint cases where video evidence was submitted from in-car cameras, 93 percent of complaints against officers were dismissed while 5 percent were sustained, according to a report from the IACP in 2004. Individual cities have also reported success; the Wall Street Journal reported that complaints against the Rialto, Calif. police fell 88 percent in the first year that officers used body cameras.
Business for companies like Taser and VieVu was already booming even before events came to a head in Ferguson, Mo. VieVu has around 44,000 units in circulation with 4,000 customers across the globe -- including the police departments in Oakland, Calif., Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas and Houston. Taser, in the past quarter alone, booked nearly $11.4 million in contracts -- nearly four times the sales of the previous year.
“We believe the concept of using wearable cameras to provide a foundation of transparency has hit a tipping point,” said Taser’s chief executive Rick Smith in a statement Tuesday. “The intense emotions that arise from uncertainty and diametrically opposed conjecture about what did or did not happen in life and death encounters can tear communities apart. We believe wearable technology, like body-worn cameras, is the future for communities to relate to those entrusted to protect them.”
Taser has a pager-sized camera that can be worn on the chest or belt, as well as other models where cameras can be attached to sunglasses or even put in the grip of a stun gun itself, for first-person footage.
Once an officer takes footage of a crime scene or incident, the video is often attached to a police report and submitted as evidence, said VieVu's Lovell, whose company produces two body cameras designed by its founder Steve Ward, a former member of the Seattle Police Department, SWAT team member and Taser employee.
Both companies also provide software for the cameras, to ensure that the sensitive video doesn't fall into the wrong hands, and also can't be edited or altered. Taser's Evidence.com and VieVu's VeriPatrol software both upload videos from officer cameras to cloud storage, and closely track when videos are viewed. The software also lets administrators set limits on who can access a video and when.
Individual police departments set their own policies for how video from police cameras gets managed -- who can view it, when it can be released to the media or the public, and how long footage is retained. But with growing pressure on police departments to be transparent about their actions, Lovell is confident we'll soon see more officers with body cameras.
"I think any police department could be one shot away from having an incident like Ferguson" and landing in the national spotlight, said Lovell. "Agencies have to keep current with technology trends that are out there."