Almost everyone these days seems to support the idea of outfitting cops with body-worn cameras. Police watchdog groups want cameras on cops to increase transparency and accountability and reduce misconduct. Police officials want to strap cameras on cops for other reasons: The technology acts as roving surveillance devices, collecting video evidence that can be used in investigations and court. Body cameras have also been used to clear officers of alleged misconduct, so a growing number of rank-and-file cops are happily strapping them on. But by far the biggest advocates of body cameras are the companies that make and sell the devices, and the cloud computing services that store and analyze the petabytes of video that the cameras generate. Police body cameras are estimated to be a billion-dollar market, and the leading vendors are now fiercely competing to prove their wares and win lucrative contracts.
Last summer, Taser International, one of the biggest companies in the police body camera industry, deployed lobbyists to Oakland in an effort to poach the city’s existing body camera contract from Vievu, a Seattle-based maker of body cameras and video management software. Taser International is best known for the electronic stun guns it popularized over the past two decades. But the fastest growing segment of Taser’s sales is body cameras. According to Taser’s most recent quarterly financial report, its camera sales have doubled over the last year and will top out well above $20 million in 2015.
Taser wants to elbow in on Vievu’s business with Oakland. To do so, Taser is relying on a former Oakland City Council staff member who now works for a Bay Area lobbying firm. In the past several months, Jason Overman, who used to be Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan’s director of communications, set up a series of meetings with city officials and Taser executives to show off the company’s latest body cameras and video management software called Evidence.com.
In a series of emails, Overman, who now works for the Barbary Coast Consulting lobbying firm, wrote to various city officials that Vievu is “a company whose cameras are wearing out, with a storage solution that hasn’t kept pace with the technology and struggles to integrate with The Cloud.” He circulated Taser brochures which had “prepared for the City of Oakland” written across the top, listing Taser’s various body camera product features.
According to city emails obtained through a public records request, Overman met with Mayor Libby Schaaf’s chief of staff, Tomiquia Moss, on July 1 to talk about the possibility of Taser replacing Vievu. Moss then arranged an internal meeting of city officials that was held on July 21 to discuss the future of OPD’s body camera technology program.
“We had our internal meeting to discuss the [c]ity’s current operations with our provider,” Moss reported back to Overman in a July 24 email. “OPD is willing to meet with you and the Taser folks to hear about what Taser is proposing.” A subsequent meeting was convened with top officials from Oakland’s police and information technology departments to listen to Taser’s sales pitch.
In a separate email to Oliver Luby — Councilmember Dan Kalb’s policy manager — Overman wrote that OPD’s existing Vievu body cameras are “aging and will require additional expense to maintain or replace,” and that “urging may need to come from the city council” to issue a new body camera contract to give Taser a shot at taking over the contract.
In another email to Councilmember Desley Brooks, Overman wrote that Taser’s body cameras are “tools to improve community-police trust.” Overman met with Brooks, who is chair of Oakland’s public safety committee, on August 19, according to the emails.
City records show that Overman met with at least thirteen different city officials, including every city councilmember except Larry Reid between July and September. According to city records, Overman was paid $15,000 by National Strategies, Inc., a Washington, DC lobbying firm that works with Taser to market its products to local law enforcement agencies.
Vievu has been Oakland’s sole police body camera vendor since 2010 when the Oakland City Council approved a $540,048 contract to outfit OPD with 250 cameras. Since then, OPD has purchased hundreds more cameras from Vievu, and Oakland police and technology staff have worked with Vievu to tailor its software, which manages the massive amounts of video footage that Oakland cops collect in the field. The cameras have become integral to almost everything OPD does, including criminal investigations, crowd control, testing the integrity of officers, and reviewing internal affairs cases. Oakland cops have become sought-after experts, advising other police agencies on technology and policy issues related to body cameras.
Overman said he could not comment about the meetings he set up between Taser and the city. But Taser’s executives are forthcoming about their aggressive effort to replace Vievu in Oakland. “We’ve won a lot of accounts back from Vievu,” said Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle in an interview.
“I think people have wrongly perceived us as being a weapons manufacturer,” said Tuttle. “The very notion of Taser is a technology. We’ve been a technology company since day one. We’ve been way ahead on this curve.”
Taser’s Axon brand of body cameras have twelve-hour batteries, a GPS tracking feature, and the cameras constantly record with a thirty-second buffer so that when an officer hits the record button it captures the previous thirty seconds of video and audio. Taser’s cameras automatically upload data to Amazon and Microsoft cloud services, and videos can be shared with other law enforcement agencies and prosecutors through the company’s Evidence.com web service.
“We’re going after an iTunes model, building an ecosystem,” said Tuttle about Taser’s cloud video platform, “letting the back-end drive the tools. We don’t buy our music that way anymore, so why would we do video evidence that way? It’s a management service.”
Vievu representatives did not respond to requests for comment for this report, but the company’s body cameras and software services are similar to Taser’s products. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Vievu’s CEO Steve Ward said that Oakland is his company’s largest customer.
Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent told the city council’s public safety committee last July that the department has considered opening up the body camera contract, and that he was meeting with a possible replacement vendor. But Whent said a new contract would be expensive and would pose complications.
“I’d be willing to bet that most of the vendors at this point will sell you a camera at dirt cheap, because the real the money is to be made on the storage,” Whent told the committee members. “The top vendor in the industry right now, for their cloud storage, is charging $99 a month per officer, so obviously with 560 [officers] deployed, and as the department grows, that number will go up — it is expensive.”
Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice handed out $22.5 million in grants to outfit 73 local law enforcement agencies with 21,000 body cameras. Oakland applied for one of the grants, but did not receive funding under the program, perhaps making a new contract less likely.
Oakland’s Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa took part in one of the meetings with Overman and Taser’s executives earlier this year. According to Figueroa, the department may not open the body camera contract after all. “I sent [Taser] an email a few weeks ago to say that we don’t have bandwidth to do a pilot program because we’re working with Microsoft moving everything to the cloud so we can move forward with our project at Stanford to do body camera analysis,” Figueroa said in an interview.
Figueroa said Oakland is currently focused on working with Stanford University professor Jennifer Eberhardt to analyze body camera audio data in order to create new risk management tools that will flag possible officer misconduct and help with police training and accountability. Eberhardt’s research team is also using body camera data to study police stops of motorists and civilians in order to measure possible racial bias. These projects require technical coordination among OPD, Stanford, Vievu, and Microsoft, and Figueroa said switching vendors right now might interfere with the projects.
Figueroa, however, left the door open to a possible contract. “To be clear, I’m interested in what works best for the City of Oakland,” he said. “Companies are very competitive with each other.”
“We would be 100 [percent] committed to maintaining the continuity of the Oakland research study around video and audio analysis,” wrote Taser’s spokesman Tuttle, in an email to me. Tuttle added that to outfit every Oakland cop with a camera could run about $700,000, and another $15 to $79 per officer, per month, for cloud services.
Regardless of whether Oakland reopens its body camera contract, other Bay Area police agencies are currently outfitting hundreds of their officers with the devices. Last month, San Francisco issued a request for bids to purchase 1,800 body cameras over several phases. San Jose also issued a request for proposal last month to buy 963 cameras. In August, the Emeryville Police Department began issuing Vievu body cameras to its officers, according to Captain Fred Dauer. And in October, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department purchased 275 Vievu cameras for deputies in the Glen Dyer and Santa Rita jails.