Saturday, August 30, 2014

Taser's business model on police body cams

Grits observed earlier this month that the most successful wearable tech businesses so far have been in the corrections industry - e.g., police body cams, GPS trackers, and alcohol monitors - and dominated by a few companies narrowly focused on law enforcement tech. I'd argued that in the wearables market, "The more significant profit potential comes when you can find ongoing, real-world uses for wearable-generated data." So I was interested to see a recent New York Times piece ("Police cameras can shed light but raise privacy concerns," Aug. 20) describing Taser International's services and fee schedule for its (relatively) new police body cam service:
In 2012, Taser began selling its most advanced body camera, the Axon Flex, which can be clipped to an officer’s sunglasses, hat, helmet or epaulets. The Flex, which sells for $599 a unit, captures a wide-angle view that is close to what an officer sees while on patrol. Other cameras, including those made by Vievu, Taser’s largest competitor, clip to an officer’s shirt or belt. Because on-body cameras also capture high-fidelity audio, watching their videos offers a strangely intimate view of police work, as if you’re playing a video game.

Throughout an officer’s shift, Taser’s camera is constantly recording what it sees. But most of its images are kept in a 30-second buffer, after which they’re discarded. The unit begins saving longer segments of video — and begins capturing audio — only when an officer double-taps a control switch.

The 30-second buffer is a way of allowing officers to essentially record events that began in the past. “Say the officer sees someone run a red light — obviously the officer didn’t know that was going to happen,” Mr. Smith said. “But once he starts recording, we go back and grab that 30 seconds before that.”

The buffer includes just video, not audio, which is saved after the officer hits Record. The video-only buffer is meant to protect officers’ privacy.

Taser’s Axon cameras are paired with the company’s online storage service,, for which police departments pay a monthly fee of $15 to $55 per officer, depending on how much storage space they use.

At the end of each shift, an officer plugs the camera into a charging dock, and all videos are uploaded to Police departments determine how long videos are retained; often retention times are related to the statute of limitations for the episodes the videos depict. Departments also set policies on who can watch the videos, and keeps an audit trail of all views.
Here's an example of what I was talking about: Not only is Taser charging a substantial sum for the camera itself, the per-officer fee generates ongoing revenue over time. Most corrections oriented "wearables" share that trait, which is why I think we'll continue to see greater market growth there in the near term than in the much-more ballyhooed wearable-tech fashion field. Many wearable apps struggle to find useful things or interesting things to do with data they generate, while corrections folks know what to do with data about their subjects - whether it's video, their location, blood-alcohol levels, etc. - and exhibit a voracious appetite for it.

In related news, Houston police chief Charles McLelland asked city hall this week "for $8 million to equip 3,500 police officers over three years with small body cameras to record encounters between law enforcement and residents as a way of improving accountability and transparency," reported the Houston Chronicle (Aug. 28). HPD had piloted the idea with 100 officers and now wants to take it department-wide.
Capt. Mike Skillern, who heads HPD's gang unit and is involved in testing the cameras, said his fellow officers act "a little more professionally" when wearing the devices.

A recent Cambridge University study of the small police department in Rialto, Calif. reported a more than 50 percent reduction of use of force incidents with officers wearing cameras and an 89 percent decline in the number of complaints against officers during the yearlong trial. 
See also a recent blog post from Paul Cassell at the Volokh Conspiracy favoring police body cams and a report published this year (pdf) sponsored by the US Department of Justice assessing research so far on their use in the field. (It concludes with a call for more research, finding that "Most of the claims made by advocates and critics of the technology remain untested.") MORE: From Ars Technica.

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