When Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, responsibility fell on 17-year-old bystander Darnella Frazier to capture the killing on a now-infamous cellphone video. Derek Chauvin, the former cop who was convicted of Floyd’s murder, was wearing a body camera at the beginning of the incident, but it allegedly fell off and slid under the squad car before he knelt on Floyd’s neck. His camera was made by a company called Axon — formerly known as Taser — the largest provider of body cameras in the United States.
Earning more than $680 million in revenue last year, Axon currently dominates the domestic body camera market. Its main competitor is Motorola, which claims to sell more affordable cameras that fit more securely to uniforms and can upload video automatically to systems that manage police evidence. The two companies are angling for control of the lucrative police-worn body camera market, which has nearly doubled in the past five years and is projected to keep growing. The cameras are a favorite tool of legislators who want to respond to police violence but don’t support proposals to reduce police presence, and their enthusiasm helped the global industry balloon to $1.2 billion in 2020, with projected growth to $7 billion by 2026.
But for industry skeptics, at issue is whether policy changes that continue to add money to police budgets for such technologies can decrease police use of force — or change policing at all. Body cameras “don’t produce accountability or transparency,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, namely because they don’t reduce the number of civilian interactions with police. “What [such technology] has produced is a ton of investment, more and more money being spent on police departments.”
While some recent studies have shown that body cameras can help decrease incidents of police use of force, others say that they have little to no impact. A 2019 review of 70 available studies on the impacts of body-worn cameras on police behavior found that though “officers and citizens are generally supportive of BWC use, BWCs have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police.”
Some police agencies have mandatory recording or reporting policies, but others don’t. Those factors make it difficult to quantify how effective the technology is overall. According to Seth Stoughton, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies the effectiveness of body cameras, “It was always unrealistic to expect a piece of equipment to change, fundamentally, police culture.”
Body cameras have often been considered by Democrats and media commentators as a potential mitigator to police violence. In the wake of Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced new standards for body camera usage, saying, “In instances when an officer faces charges and a potential conviction, a clear understanding of what the officer perceived is an essential factor.” In a YouTube interview last year, forensic video analyst Grant Fredericks said that he had “been swamped since George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.” On Capitol Hill, Democrats introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a federal police reform package that they promised — and failed — to pass by the 2021 anniversary of Floyd’s death. The bill included a provision requiring all federal officers to wear body cameras, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi highlighted among other measures that made it “different from other bills that are around.”
The prominence of body cameras in the national conversation comes amid a litany of lobbying by the two companies. One of the companies lobbying last year for the bill’s promotion of body cameras was Axon, which at the time already had a customer relationship with 17,000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies. According to its 2020 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company had sales representatives assigned to the 1,200 biggest agencies, which account for between 70 and 80 percent of U.S. law enforcement officers. The company claims that its “mission is to protect life” and that its body cameras allow cops “to work effectively and transparently.” It says that its Taser weapons “protect life without taking it,” though a Fatal Encounters dataset showed that more than 500 people have died after being Tased since 2010.
Axon acquired what was then its largest competitor in 2018, becoming the main supplier of cameras to police departments in New York City, Phoenix, and Miami. Though the Federal Exchange Commission challenged the acquisition last year — in a case that’s still pending — Axon’s most formidable rising competitor is Motorola, which in 2019 acquired two companies that make body cameras in the U.S. and in Europe. The company recently announced contracts in Tennessee, Illinois, France, and the United Kingdom. Its fastest growing sectors are video and security analytics, which brought in $927 million in revenue last year.
“Transparency shouldn’t come at a high price,” reads an advertisement for Motorola’s pay-as-you-go police body cameras. “In a world full of cellphones and connected video devices, sometimes the only reliable witness to an incident is one you carry with you each day.”
According to their disclosures, both Motorola and Axon lobbied Congress on police reform issues in the fall. Last quarter, while Axon lobbied on appropriations for body cameras, “less-lethal” technologies, and issues related to police reform in next year’s federal budget, Motorola lobbied on facial recognition legislation that would limit how people’s data is collected and shared without their consent. Axon says it has committed to not using facial recognition technology in its products, citing ethical concerns, but Motorola offers the technology in several of its lines.
“There has been strong bipartisan support for body-worn cameras for almost a decade in addition to strong public support,” an Axon spokesperson said in a statement to The Intercept. “While body cameras are not a panacea and cannot take the place of good policies, training, and community policing efforts, they do play a critical role in the future of policing.” Motorola did not respond to a request for comment.
The companies have a public-facing ally in Fredericks, a former police officer who has business ties to Axon but supports the industry as a whole through his media spots. Fredericks owns the video consultancy company Forensic Video Solutions, where his son, Andrew, also works; he is also the senior adviser of the forensic software company iNPUT-ACE, which last year partnered with Axon to sell body camera video conversion and cloud hosting services. (Andrew is iNPUT-ACE’s CEO.) A top field trainer with the FBI, Fredericks has been cited as an expert in mainstream news outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times and has testified as an expert witness more than 150 times, including on behalf of — and sometimes against — officers in police misconduct cases. News outlets that bring him on as an expert have not disclosed his ties to Axon.
Last month, Fredericks was in the spotlight yet again when he and his company weighed in on a dispute over techniques prosecutors used to enhance video footage in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three demonstrators, killing two and injuring another, during last year’s protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after police there shot Jacob Blake. “If a video is not reproduced accurately, one juror might interpret it incorrectly or might see something that they consider to be really clear,” Fredericks told The Associated Press. “My duty as an expert is to make sure everything I’m showing is reliable.” John R. Black, an expert witness for Rittenhouse’s defense team, used iNPUT-ACE to present video evidence during the trial.
Seven years earlier, Fredericks’s video expertise helped defend the Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The boy had been playing in a park with a toy gun, and video evidence of him holding it got officers off the hook for federal charges in his killing.
Forensic Video Solutions, Fredericks’s video consultancy company, enhanced the footage for a highly criticized expert report prosecutors submitted in the case, which concluded without criminal charges against the officer. Rice’s mother said prosecutors “deliberately sabotaged” the case and acted in defense of police. Judges, prosecutors, and other experts have debunked Fredericks’s testimony in several high-profile police cases and accused him of prosecutorial misconduct, lying, and not disclosing his business relationships with Taser or Axon. Fredericks did not respond to a request for comment.
Even so, Fredericks is one of numerous analysts and experts with ties to law enforcement agencies whose commentary has helped drive a political appetite for technologies like body cameras that aim to provide solutions without changing a police culture that relies on use of force. For its recent investigation into deadly traffic stops, the New York Times turned to Fredericks to comment on what drives police to kill. On his company’s homepage, a quote from Fredericks proclaims: “Video analysis is the new DNA for law enforcement. It is the next generation of investigation.”
“The most common use to which body-worn camera videos are put is nothing at all.”
While communities seeking reform might view body cameras as a tool for accountability, police agencies might view them as an investigative tool. “The most common use to which body-worn camera videos are put is nothing at all,” said Stoughton, of the University of South Carolina. “The second most common thing is they’re used in support of police operations,” including as evidence in criminal prosecutions. “And then there are the accountability uses.”
“Body cameras were sold as a solution to police violence, as a solution to systemic racism within policing,” said Roberts, of Color of Change. “And it was never a real solution. It’s a symptom of a larger trend, which is pursuit of profit in these kinds of technological interventions that are supposed to resolve what are really deeply-seated issues in our justice system,” like risk assessments for bail or electronic monitoring.
“We’re interested in things that feel preventative, like pulling back on the investment in military equipment in police departments,” Roberts said. Color of Change didn’t take a position last year on the Floyd bill, which would have increased funding for law enforcement agencies. Several civil rights groups, including the Movement for Black Lives and Essie Justice Group, crafted an alternative bill called the BREATHE Act, which would have divested funds from federal law enforcement agencies.
Numerous city councils across the country approved additional police funding for body cameras last year, as was the case several years ago after protest movements in Ferguson, Missouri. And increased investment in police technologies can provide a boon not only for body camera companies like Axon and Motorola, but also for software, artificial intelligence, and other companies that provide technologies like cloud storage and facial recognition.
“Video is data intensive,” Fredericks wrote in a September article for Police Chief magazine. “Police agencies expect to produce more visual data than any other form of computer information, so much information that outsourcing storage and management to a third party is often the only viable and cost-effective strategy for agencies currently drowning in video data. For example, Axon, one provider of cloud-based storage solutions, reports it is managing and storing more than 120,000 TB of video data from 14,000 police agencies.” The magazine did not disclose Fredericks’s ties to Axon.
Axon already had contracts with the police departments responsible for arguably the two highest-profile police killings of 2020. In addition to Minneapolis, the Louisville, Kentucky, police department has had a contract to use Axon cameras since 2015. But Louisville police shot and killed at least 19 people between 2015 and 2020, and before they killed Breonna Taylor, no officer had been charged in a deadly shooting case since 2004, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Louisville’s mayor said that the cops who killed Taylor weren’t wearing cameras at the time or they did not turn them on.
Correction: December 10, 2021
The piece has been updated to clarify that the Fatal Encounters dataset does not claim Tasers are the sole cause of death in the cases they analyzed. The dataset shows more than 500 people died “soon after” being Tased since 2010.