|Taser’s Latest Police Weapon: The Tiny Camera and the Cloud |
By QUENTIN HARDY
New York Times
February 21, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO — Sgt. Brandon Davis vividly recalled the moment before he killed Eric Wayne Berry, but it was not the way it really happened.
“I told him to drop his weapon, twice,” the police officer then in Fort Smith, Ark., said. But after repeated viewings of a video of the shooting, captured by a minicamera he was wearing, he said, “it turned out it was nine different times. He kept telling me to drop my weapon.” When Mr. Berry raised his .45-caliber pistol on the officer and leaned at an angle that could improve his marksmanship, Sergeant Davis said, he shot Mr. Berry in the heart.
The shooting, tragedy that it was, was speedily cleared by his superiors because the entire incident was captured on tape. “It happened at noon on a Wednesday,” Sergeant Davis said. “I first watched it with the police psychiatrist on Thursday morning. I got out of there and I was cleared for work.” He has watched it many times since then, to shed any lingering doubts about his course of action.
Sergeant Davis, who now works on the police force in nearby Greenwood, was testing a new kind of camera, to be worn by an officer, when his fatal encounter was recorded in November 2009. Since then, both the hardware and software in the system have been significantly modified by Taser International, the maker of the camera. Taser is better known for stun guns that deliver a painful and immobilizing electric shock.
On Tuesday, Taser will announce a camera, a half-ounce unit about the size of a cigar stub that clips on to a collar or sunglasses of an officer and can record two hours of video during a shift. The information is transferred by a docking station to a local machine, and eventually stored in a cloud-computing system that uses Taser’s online evidence management system.
Taser, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has had its share of controversies over its electric-shock guns, which Rick Smith, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, says are used by 17,000 of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States.
Although it is sold as a nonlethal weapon, the device’s safety has been repeatedly questioned. The Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the company’s safety claims in 2005 and 2006, and while it took no action against Taser, the company’s shares fell 78 percent in 2005 as sales declined. Law enforcement agencies with tight budgets also slowed their orders.
Fears about the safety of Tasers remain, despite company claims they are safer than nightsticks or guns. The 2007 “Don’t Tase Me Bro” video of a student receiving shocks at a political event was seen six million times on YouTube, keeping concerns high. Last spring, a team of cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, said Taser-related safety research may be biased because of ties with the company, something Taser denies.
Mr. Smith, who has had himself shocked in public with versions of his product seven times just to allay fears, said, “You have to lead from the front.”
But the camera system, called Axon, is one way to defuse the controversies. Taser already has some 55,000 minicameras mounted on Tasers. But the camera is only triggered when the gun is drawn. It could do the same for police shootings. The video, however, would not capture the events leading up to that point and provides no context that might justify the weapon’s use.
“One big reason to have these is defensive,” Mr. Smith said. “Police spend $2 billion to $2.5 billion a year paying off complaints about brutality. Plus, people plead out when there is video.” Sergeant Davis says Mr. Berry’s widow later claimed her husband was holding a cellphone, not a gun, but the video exonerated the officer.
In Taser’s cloud evidence system, which resides on Amazon.com’s cloud storage service, the videos can be tagged and labeled for record-keeping. The software has editing capabilities to protect the identities of some people captured on the video, like victims of child sex crimes or undercover officers. The video cannot be deleted while in the camera, though an officer can choose when to turn his camera on and off, something Mr. Smith does not think will happen often during confrontations because the videos could help clear law-abiding officers.
“When people know they are on camera, they act like better citizens,” said Hadi Partovi, an Internet entrepreneur who is on Taser’s board.
That goes for law enforcement officers, too, said Mr. Smith. “We have more cameras on cops than anyone else.”
Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the speech, privacy and technology project at the American Civil Liberties Union, was enthusiastic about the prospect of body cameras on law officers.
“We don’t want the government watching the people when there is no reason, but we do support the people watching the government,” he said. “There are concerns about police editing or deleting files, but overall the cost and benefits make it worthwhile.”
By holding the video evidence on remote servers, Taser hopes to help law enforcement agencies achieve the cost savings that cloud computing has provided for business and industry. The cloud product, Taser says, does not require an information technology professional on the police department’s payroll. It cuts down on losses from poor storage of disks or tape, loss or theft of evidence or even evidence-tampering.
Taser will charge clients on a sliding scale that involves both the amount of data stored and customer support. The system could cost a small department a few thousand dollars a year or a few hundred thousand dollars for a large force. Taser is initially offering the first year of the service at no charge in the hopes of luring a lot of customers to the cloud. The new cameras sell for $1,000, including a battery that lasts 14 hours.
In an era of tight budgets, that might not be an easy sale. “This is at least a $1 billion opportunity,” said Mr. Partovi, who is better known for inventing, along with his twin, a social music sharing service called iLike, which was sold to MySpace in 2009 for about $20 million. “Once video is up in the cloud, why not photos? Why not all sorts of evidence? It will make it easier for different agencies to collaborate.”
Taser’s competitors say wearable video will be big, but they doubt the police will move to cloud-based evidence systems. “CSI and all those shows with ‘video forensics’ mean juries have come to expect camera evidence,” said John McConnell, a Nashville entrepreneur who has sold dashboard cameras to police departments for over a decade. He is moving into body cameras, but asks, “Have you ever seen a law enforcement agency outsource their evidence room?”
If body cameras do catch on, the images will almost certainly flood the Internet. Video from cameras mounted on dashboards of police cruisers is already a staple on YouTube. Footage of a New Hampshire law officer’s murder in 2007 has been seen 2.3 million times.
Some of Sergeant Davis’s deadly encounter is also online, through a local television station that got the footage. That is fine with him, he said, because it could possibly serve as a useful training model for other officers.