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The body-camera industry is ‘feeling phenomenal’ after Ferguson

Sgt. Chris Wicklund with the Burnsville Police Department in Minnesota wears a Taser Axon body camera beneath his microphone last month. Burnsville wants to have all its uniformed officers equipped with cameras by the end of the year. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

President Obama's call this week to spend $75 million to outfit America’s police departments with body cameras was celebrated as a move toward officer transparency after the killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo. But few rejoiced like the body-camera industry, which stands to make a fortune off police forces nationwide with newfound millions to spend.

The White House would help buy 50,000 body cameras through a proposed spending match with local law enforcement, nearly doubling the number of body cameras now in use across the country. And for the two companies in control of the market, the money represents a goldmine: $75 million is more than seven times what Taser International made off body-camera sales last year.

A spokesman for Taser, best known for its electroshock guns, called the Ferguson shooting a "massive awareness campaign" for police body cameras, and investors have feverishly jumped onboard. Taser's stock has almost doubled since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in August, climbing on Tuesday to its highest point in nearly 10 years.

Police body cameras, which boosters call one of the best ways to reduce false complaints and prevent abuses of power, were cast into the center of a major policy push after Brown's killing; a grand jury declined to charge Wilson last month. But police agencies wanting the equipment have two options for where to direct their budgets: Vievu, a private Seattle firm that says it has sold more than 40,000 cameras, and Taser, which has sold about 30,000.

"We are feeling phenomenal right now," Taser chief executive Patrick W. Smith said in an earnings call in October. "What everybody thought was crazy five years ago is now accepted as inevitable."

The industry stands to earn money from far more than just the gadgets. Taser is also selling subscriptions to its online data cloud, where terabytes of police video footage can be uploaded, encrypted and stored. Vievu is working with Microsoft to develop its own cloud platform.

The services solve the police problem of how to manage its sensitive video. Taser's service even comes with redaction features that can blur or mute on command. But they also give the camera companies a lucrative upsell that keeps agencies locked in and paying long-term. About 75 percent of the body cameras Taser sold this year have been packaged with contracts for, Taser's cloud service, which sells for up to $55 per officer a month. Nearly all police departments that signed on, Taser said, opted for multi-year deals.

"The upfront cameras themselves are not that interesting. They are, or will be, fairly quickly commoditized. What investors will pay for is a recurring revenue stream," said Steve Dyer, a senior research analyst with Craig-Hallum Capital Group. Taser "rightly saw early on that selling a plastic camera is going to be a lot worse of a business than building long-term relationships."

The industry is still very much in its infancy: The 50,000 cameras supported under Obama's proposal will cover only 7 percent of the more than 700,000 sworn officers in the U.S. That has investors moving in quickly for a foothold in a rising industry, as well as a flood of federal funds. In the two days since the White House's announcement, the market value of Digital Ally, a small Kansas company that makes a video-recording police flashlight, has exploded from $28 million to $55 million.

"I knew once the masses found out this technology existed, everyone would be clamoring for it," Vievu chief executive Steve Ward said. "My dream of putting a camera on every cop is just coming true even quicker."

Some analysts have been skeptical about how closely cameras would be adopted in smaller rural or suburban departments. And critics question just how effective video footage can be in holding officers accountable: After the caught-on-camera police chokehold death of an unarmed man in Staten Island, a grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer involved.

But body cameras already have a strong track record. One year after officers in Rialto, Calif., began wearing cameras, complaints against officers and police use of force plunged. Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, said, "Within the next five years or so, body-worn cameras will be as ubiquitous in the world of policing as handcuffs, the police radio, the gun."

That's great news for Taser, which has invested heavily to convince America's police forces to upgrade with the company's tech. At an International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in October, Taser, whose theme was "Don't Be a Dinosaur," paid for two life-sized velociraptors to walk the exhibit grounds and handed out large stuffed dinosaurs. Smith, the Taser chief executive, said in October that it was "the most impactful marketing campaign in the history of law enforcement."

Taser's Axon clip-on body camera looks like a pager and comes with a wide-angle digital lens. Though cameras like it sold in recent years for about $1,000, competition has driven its price down to $399; a sleeker eyeglass-mounted camera, the Axon Flex, sells for $599. Like many modern gadgets, the real money for the sellers will come from long-term contractsTaser executives said most police departments are signing deals on Taser's "Ultimate" plan, in which body cameras are replaced or upgraded every two to three years.

Taser says its body cameras have now been deployed in all 50 states, implemented in 13 major cities and are now in trial in 35 more. Officers in the St. Louis suburb where Brown was killed have since started wearing the cameras. The New York Police Department became the largest in America to start using the cameras when it launched its pilot program in September, and further expansion could be hugely lucrative: Outfitting the whole department would cost about $32 million.

What does Taser have over, say, a wearable-camera giant like GoPro? Long business partnerships with police agencies, name recognition among officers and a steely style of marketing squarely aimed at the criminal-defense set. That competitive advantage, analysts said, could make it easier for body-camera makers to stay in public budgets for years to come.

Taser's chief executive compared the rise of body cameras to the early days of its Taser guns: Though at first resisted by officers as too controversial, they are now nearly ubiquitous, found in all but 1,000 of the nation's 18,000 police departments. Dashboard cameras in police cruisers saw similar resistance but are now standard issue. And White House backing gives the program that much more oomph: A similar White House fund-matching program led police departments to buy more than a million protective vests.

Taser's business could extend far beyond the American badge. The company has invested in an international sales plan, with arms in Europe and Asia hawking its nonlethal weaponry, body cameras and access to the evidence cloud. Some of the largest agencies in Brazil are now testing Axon cameras, deployed from an data center in São Paulo, Smith said. (The global expansion comes with its own logistical issues: Some international clients, worrying over privacy rights, insist that their footage be stored on servers outside the U.S.)

Taser first got into the video business by attaching cameras to its shock weaponry, but the technology had two fatal flaws: It only recorded footage in the rare moments when aimed, and it did little to calm the situation now on tape. The firm later worked with the Oakley sunglass chain, an officer favorite, to develop something more passive and easy to use, but has begun looking at its cloud offerings as the next step to get police departments hooked.

"Anybody can make a camera. That's not the trick. The trick is: Can you make an ecosystem … to get police into that 21st century mindset?" said Steve Tuttle, a Taser spokesman. "It's not a panacea. It's not a magic bullet. … But we're about as close as you can get right now."

Correction: An early version of this post misspelled the name of the president of the Police Foundation. It is Bueermann, not Buerrmann.