Two cops get off the F train at Jay Street MetroTech station in Brooklyn on a Monday morning. The police scan the platform for suspicious behavior, decide all is well, and march slowly up the stairs. On their way up, two young black men walk down the staircase--the cops stop, plant their feet, and stare the men down. The men continue down toward the platform, twisting their necks to keep their eyes locked on the cops. "Keep walking, police," one of the men says.
This interaction, which I witnessed earlier this week, ended without incident--the cops went on their way and the men continued on their commute--but the mild hostility speaks to a nationwide problem. After no indictments were issued to police officers involved in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, last year, mistrust between law enforcement and the black community has escalated significantly.
One frequently suggested method of preventing future incidents is to equip police with body cameras. The results of a study by University of Cambridge criminologist Barak Ariel make a persuasive case for the technology: During the 12-month study in Rialto, California, police officers who did not wear body cameras were found to be twice as likely to use force as those who did. The Rialto Police Department also experienced a decrease in citizen complaints against the department when the cameras were adopted.
"It's not a silver bullet to fix police brutality--video of one event doesn't change something," says Todd Morris, CEO and founder of BrickHouse Security, which sells body cameras, GPS trackers, and surveillance gear to police. "But multiple videos of civil rights violations can make change over time, like it did when the nation saw what happened in Selma or videos of coffins coming home from Vietnam on TV."
Regardless of how effective body cameras are, it appears they are here to stay. One healthy sign for the industry that produces the equipment is a $263 million spending package proposed by President Obama in December 2014 aimed at upgrading law enforcement technology and training. Obama's plan puts $75 million aside to buy 50,000 body cameras for police. Below, check out the two companies--one a startup, the other a well-known brand--competing to snatch up the lion's share of lucrative police department contracts.
A camera for cops, by cops
Steve Ward, who spent seven years as an officer with the Seattle Police Department and six with the city's SWAT team, says he founded Seattle-based VieVu in 2007 to protect officers against unfounded civilian complaints.
"There is so much liability for police officers today, and most things come down to a he-said-she-said," Ward tells Inc. "If a police officer gets a complaint or goes to court, it's an officer's word against someone else's word. I wanted to make a body camera that can record an officer's day [so] complaints get settled quicker, court cases get won faster, and the cameras can eliminate all ambiguity."
Ward says VieVu has sold its body cameras to 4,000 police departments in the U.S., as well as law enforcement agencies in 16 countries. The biggest deployment is in the Oakland Police Department, which has equipped every officer with a VieVu camera starting from the academy. After four years using VieVu's body cams, the OPD reports a significant reduction in use of force against civilians. According to Oakland mayor Jean Quan, there were 2,186 use-of-force incidents in 2009 (before adoption of the cameras), compared with 836 in 2013 when the cameras were in use.
Protecting police from lawsuits, however, isn't the problem at hand. The deaths of Brown and Garner made national headlines, but according to a recent report by the FBI, there was an average of 96 cases per year, from 2006 to 2012, of a white police officer killing a black person. The data is limited, and details of it have been called into question, but the report paints a grim picture regardless.
Ward says he recognizes the fact that his cameras do not only help police. "The community likes body cameras too. It provides a way to see into what their police are doing. This kind of transparency is the ultimate win-win," he says. "If we have video evidence of what happened, we can answer a lot of questions. Having that video will expose the truth, and that's what everybody is after."
VieVu's cameras come with secure cloud storage of video evidence through a monthly subscription. "We have software that prevents officers from viewing, deleting, or altering video--this is an important trust piece we sell," he says.
Ward says the startup, which he grew by bootstrapping, will continue to focus solely on body cameras and cloud storage. "Everyone behaves better on video," he says. "There are a lot of things going on right now, but body cameras are a great tool to provide the vast majority of cops who risk their lives and do a great job with a way to help restore trust."
A camera by Taser
For its entry into the body camera market, Taser partnered with Looxcie, a small-wearable-camera startup. Taser now sells two different models--the sunglasses-mounted Axon Flex and the chest-mounted Axon Body--which work with its digital evidence cloud storage product Evidence.com.
Body cameras are big business for the public company. In its last quarter, Taser brought in $15 million for body cameras and Evidence.com, compared with $40 million for its namesake conducted electrical weapons, co-founder and CEO Rick Smith tells Inc.
Smith, who started Taser in 1993 after two of his friends were shot and killed during a road rage incident in Arizona, says body cameras are a perfect next product for his company. "I am a big fan of the body camera," he says. "They bring a lot more information to the table."
To be sure, video will not always help the community. Eric Garner's death at the hands of police was on tape, for example. But Smith says that cameras generally could provide a much more well-rounded view in incidents like the Michael Brown shooting. "When you don't have facts, you jump to your biases. ... Cops think [Officer Darren Wilson] saved his own life, and civilians think [Wilson] took Brown's life," he says. "You have a far better baseline to work with when you have the facts. Body cameras can provide that baseline."