The company that makes Tasers announced Wednesday that it is offering free body cameras for a year to any police department that wants them, a move that could lead to thousands more officers adopting the technology.
Axon — a police technology company that officially changed its name on Wednesday from TASER International, like the stun gun for which it is known — announced that it will provide free cameras, software, training and data storage to police officers anywhere in the country for a year, after which departments would have to pay to keep the devices. Axon officials say they hope the offer persuades police departments that are on the fence about adopting cameras — and that those departments could eventually wind up being Axon customers.
“We feel pretty confident that having a body camera for a cop is like having a smartphone for a consumer,” says Axon CEO Rick Smith. “You didn’t know you needed it, but once you had it, you’re like, I’m not giving this back.”
Police interest in body cameras has accelerated in the last few years following a number of high-profile deaths at the hands of police officers. Many of the nation’s largest police departments — including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago — have signed multi-million-dollar contracts with body camera companies. In New York, the city’s mayor and police commissioner have announced that all officers will wear body cameras by 2019. Similar plans are underway in Chicago for all officers to be equipped with cameras by 2018.
There are no definitive numbers on how many police departments in the U.S. are currently using cameras. A 2013 Department of Justice report found that one-third of all departments are using them, while Axon estimates that roughly 150,000 out of 800,000 officers — or about 20% — are currently using them.
But the appetite from departments is there. A recent survey conducted by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs’ Association found that 95% of police departments were either using or planned to use body cameras, while only 18% of those surveyed said they currently had cameras that were “fully operational.”
For companies like Axon, the body camera market shows enormous growth potential. The market now includes roughly 60 companies that manufacture cameras; the two dominant ones are Axon and Vievu, which has added a number of big-city clients recently, including the NYPD.
“Vievu is a big competitor of [Axon’s] that has made some inroads,” says Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies police technology. He thinks Axon is likely feeling pressure to innovate in a crowded marketplace.
Axon’s bet is that once a department takes the cameras on, it’ll be difficult for them to give them up.
“We think taking a body camera from an agency that’s been using it for a year would be like taking my daughter’s iPhone away six months after she got it,” Axon’s Smith says.
The body camera offer comes as the company is changing its name from TASER, signifying its move beyond the stun gun. The Taser product still made up a majority of the company’s revenue last year, but the name change signals the company’s overall shift toward body cameras, software and artificial intelligence. Axon recently acquired two AI companies that will allow it to help departments more quickly redact identifying information in the video being collecting from body cameras. Axon has also been growing its cloud-based software business — evidence.com — where it collects the vast amounts of data from body cam footage.
The publicly traded company saw total revenues of $268 million last year and has about $100 million in cash on hand. The company has been preparing for the body camera announcement for months, getting thousands of cameras ready that could potentially cost the company tens of millions of dollars depending on how many departments sign on.
Smith adds that he thinks there might be some complaining from his competitors, but says: “Ultimately what we think is going to happen is that they’re going to follow suit.”
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