Can the Manufacturer of Tasers Provide the Answer to Police Abuse ? | The New Yorker
Tasers are carried by some six hundred thousand law-enforcement officers around the world—a kind of market saturation that also presents a problem. “One of the challenges with Taser is: where do you go next, what’s Act II?” Smith said. “For us, luckily, Act II is cameras.” He began adding cameras to his company’s weapons in 2006, to defend against allegations of abuse, and in the process inadvertently opened a business line that may soon overshadow the Taser. In recent years, body cameras—the officer’s answer to bystander cell-phone video—have become ubiquitous, and Smith’s company, now worth four billion dollars, is their largest manufacturer, holding contracts with more than half the major police departments in the country.
The cameras have little intrinsic value, but the information they collect is worth a fortune to whoever can organize and safeguard it. Smith has what he calls an iPod/iTunes opportunity—a chance to pair a hardware business with an endlessly recurring and expanding data-storage subscription plan. In service of an intensifying surveillance state and the objectives of police as they battle the public for control of the story, Smith is building a network of electrical weapons, cameras, drones, and someday, possibly, robots, connected by a software platform called Evidence.com. In the process, he is trying to reposition his company in the public imagination, not as a dubious purveyor of stun guns but as a heroic seeker of truth.
A year ago, Smith changed Taser’s name to Axon Enterprise, referring to the conductive fibre of a nerve cell. Taser was founded in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Smith lives; to transform into Axon, he opened an office in Seattle, hiring designers and engineers from Uber, Google, and Apple. When I met him at the Seattle office this spring, he wore a company T-shirt that read “Expect Candor” and a pair of leather sneakers in caution yellow, the same color as Axon’s logo: a delta symbol—for change—which also resembles the lens of a surveillance camera.
Already, Axon’s servers, at Microsoft, store nearly thirty petabytes of video—a quarter-million DVDs’ worth—and add approximately two petabytes each month. When body-camera footage is released—say, in the case of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man killed by police in Sacramento, or of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, this past fall—Axon’s logo is often visible in the upper-right corner of the screen. The company’s stock is up a hundred and thirty per cent since January.
The original Taser was the invention of an aerospace engineer named Jack Cover, inspired by the sci-fi story “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” about a boy inventor whose long gun fires a five-thousand-volt charge. Early experiments were comical: Cover wired the family couch to shock his sister and her boyfriend as they were on the brink of making out. Later, he discovered that he could fell buffalo when he hit them with electrified darts. In 1974, Cover got a patent and began to manufacture an electric gun. That weapon was similar to today’s Taser: a Glock-shaped object that sends out two live wires, loaded with fifty thousand volts of electricity and ending in barbed darts that attach to a target. When the hooks connect, they create a charged circuit, which causes muscles to contract painfully, rendering the subject temporarily incapacitated. More inventor than entrepreneur, Cover designed the Taser to propel its darts with an explosive, leading the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to classify it a Title II weapon (a category that also includes sawed-off shotguns), which required an arduous registration process and narrowed its appeal.
A few years after Tasers went on the market, Rick Smith added a data port to track each trigger pull. The idea, he told me, came from the Baltimore Police Department, which was resisting Tasers out of a concern that officers would abuse people with them. In theory, with a data port, cops would use their Tasers more conscientiously, knowing that each deployment would be recorded and subject to review. But in Baltimore it didn’t work out that way. Recent reports in the Sun revealed that nearly sixty per cent of people Tased by police in Maryland between 2012 and 2014—primarily black and living in low-income neighborhoods—were “non-compliant and non-threatening.”
Act II begins in the nauseous summer of 2014, when Eric Garner died after being put in a choke hold by police in Staten Island and Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson, of the Ferguson Police. After a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson—witness statements differed wildly, and no footage of the shooting came to light—Brown’s family released a statement calling on the public to “join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”
In the fall of 2014, Taser débuted the Officer Safety Plan, which now costs a hundred and nine dollars a month and includes Tasers, cameras, and a sensor that wirelessly activates all the cameras in its range whenever a cop draws his sidearm. This feature is described on the Web site as a prudent hedge in chaotic times: “In today’s online culture where videos go viral in an instant, officers must capture the truth of a critical event. But the intensity of the moment can mean that hitting ‘record’ is an afterthought. Both officers and communities facing confusion and unrest have asked for a solution that turns cameras on reliably, leaving no room for dispute.” According to White’s review of current literature, half of the randomized controlled studies show a substantial or statistically significant reduction in use of force following the introduction of body cameras. The research into citizen complaints is more definitive: cameras clearly reduce the number of complaints from the public.
The practice of “testi-lying”—officers lying under oath—is made much more difficult by the presence of video.
Even without flagrant dissimulation, body-camera footage is often highly contentious. Michael White said, “The technology is the easy part. The human use of the technology really is making things very complex.” Policies on how and when cameras should be used, and how and when and by whom footage can be accessed, vary widely from region to region. Jay Stanley, who researches technology for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the value of a body camera to support democracy depends on those details. “When is it activated? When is it turned off? How vigorously are those rules enforced? What happens to the video footage, how long is it retained, is it released to the public?” he said. “These are the questions that shape the nature of the technology and decide whether it just furthers the police state.”
Increasingly, civil-liberties groups fear that body cameras will do more to amplify police officers’ power than to restrain their behavior. Black Lives Matter activists view body-camera programs with suspicion, arguing that communities of color need better educational and employment opportunities, environmental justice, and adequate housing, rather than souped-up robo-cops. They also argue that video has been ineffectual: many times, the public has watched the police abuse and kill black men without facing conviction. Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State Los Angeles, who is active in Black Lives Matter, told me, “Video surveillance, including body cameras, are being used to bolster police claims, to hide what police are doing, and engage in what we call the double murder of our people. They kill the body and use the footage to increase accusations around the character of the person they just killed.” In her view, police use video as a weapon: a black man shown in a liquor store in a rough neighborhood becomes a suspect in the public mind. Video generated by civilians, on the other hand, she sees as a potential check on abuses. She stops to record with her cell phone almost every time she witnesses a law-enforcement interaction with a civilian.
Bringing in talented engineers is crucial to Smith’s vision. The public-safety nervous system that he is building runs on artificial intelligence, software that can process and analyze an ever-expanding trove of video evidence. The L.A.P.D. alone has already made some five million videos, and adds more than eleven thousand every day. At the moment, A.I. is used for redaction, and Axon technicians at a special facility in Scottsdale are using data from police departments to train the software to detect and blur license plates and faces.
Facial recognition, which techno-pessimists see as the advent of the Orwellian state, is not far behind. Recently, Smith assembled an A.I. Ethics Board, to help steer Axon’s decisions. (His lead A.I. researcher, recruited from Uber, told him that he wouldn’t be able to hire the best engineers without an ethics board.) Smith told me, “I don’t want to wake up like the guy Nobel, who spent his life making things that kill people, and then, at the end of his life, it’s, like, ‘O.K., I have to buy my way out of this.’ ”