Could Cop Cams Have Prevented the Rise of the Islamic State?

Airmen with the 75th Security Forces Squadron shoot X26 Tasers during a training course on Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany DeNault

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Airmen with the 75th Security Forces Squadron shoot X26 Tasers during a training course on Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

The founder of Taser discusses the evolution of his company and its military future. By Patrick Tucker

Taser CEO Rick Smith is looking to expand sales of Taser products to the military, and not just their legendary stun guns, but also officer-mounted cameras and even cloud data services. He’s also looking to get them not just into the hands of U.S. soldiers, but also the foreign soldiers we are arming.  What he’s offering today could make a big difference not only on the streets of cities like Ferguson but even, he hopes, places like Iraq.

Had the American-equipped forces operating in Northern Iraq been outfitted with cameras as quickly as they had been with guns, it’s possible that someone, some analyst working out of the suburbs Washington D.C., might have identified Islamic State fighters before they became the international threat Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared them to be today. And this August would have seen fewer U.S. soldiers in Iraq or in Ferguson. At least, that’s what Smith hopes the Pentagon will start to see.

The military didn’t plan on becoming the police monitors in Iraq. But a growing body of analysts and Iraq watchers agree that the type of de-Baathification policies that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pursued in former Sunni strongholds, and the naked corruption shown by Shia military and police forces in Sunni towns like Tikrit, helped to create an environment where the Islamic State group was able to find willing volunteers..

Police cameras on Iraqi police, or the United States-armed Peshmerga, could offer a view that’s fundamentally different from helmet-mounted cameras on U.S. troops, or even satellite imagery. It’s a picture of daily life in a city where the U.S. has an interest, and where we also a lot of equipment sitting around.

“A lot of what we’re doing in Iraq is trying to quell sectarian violence. That means sending U.S. service members out in joint patrols with the locals, both Iraq and Afghan. What we’ve found is that that doesn’t always go over well in the community because the local force can be seen as collaborators,” Smith said.

“But we also want to see that we don’t have retribution stuff happening with the local [police] going and doing things to pay off small debts or whatever. So imagine if we start putting the cameras on the local forces and we pull the Americans back further? We can say, ‘Hey if you’re going to be getting American weapons and American equipment, we are going to retain an audit capability. We want to make sure that your soldiers are going to be building the things we’re trying to build, rather than just asking for the money.’”

Police problems are something that Smith knows a lot about. Prior to the recent events that have made famous the city of Ferguson, Missouri, the word most closely associated with police abuse was “Taser.” Why? Overuse. When the consequences of drawing a weapon go down, the likelihood of the weapon coming out of its holster goes up. Society prefers nonlethal remedies to lethal and reasoning to blasting someone with 20 volts; but psychological de-escalation doesn’t happen just because equipment is swapped out. That’s why Taser is associated with incidents of abuse, rather than moments where lethal force was sparred.

For Smith, the scenes playing out in Missouri have shown the value of the nonlethal weapons that he’s been trying to get into police departments. Everyone acknowledges that had shooting victim Michael Brown encountered nonlethal force rather than six rounds, there would likely have been no protests or need to call the National Guard. But Ferguson also shows a utility for police-mounted cameras and even data storage, two areas that Taser began to expand into rapidly.

In 2006, largely in response to demand from its police department clients, the company expanded from guns that provide “neuro-muscular incapacitation” (the company’s own term) to record keeping. They introduced a line of camera products to record officer interactions with suspects. The most famous study on the effectiveness of police-mounted cameras to date took place in Rialto, Calif., beginning in February of 2012 and lasted until July of 2013. Result: with police-mounted cameras complaints against police declined 88 percent.  

As soon as Taser began marketing cameras, they realized that they were in a new business, and one far more demanding than making stun guns. They were now a data company and needed a way to store it for local police. In 2011, the company created Evidence.com. It began as a cloud system where subscribers could upload and access evidence data from Taser products and has expanded into a SAS-based product to handle email as well as video footage, etc.

Going forward, Smith wants to make Evidence.com smarter, bumping up the interface with a lot of artificial intelligence capabilities so that police can look through closed-circuit television, Taser, and cop-camera footage much faster. All the data that they are collecting lends itself to better crime analysis on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level.

“As video analytics tools and artificial intelligence tools become more powerful,” Smith said, “video itself is going to be able to tell a much more analytic story than it could five or ten years ago when video was analog.”

So far, the military represents a small share of the company’s business—about $5 to $7 million dollars per year. It’s less than 10 percent of their annual profits, which were $138 million last year. The products the Defense Department purchases include mostly Tasers for military police, no camera sales to the military yet.

“Two major obstacles have hindered the full acceptance of AXON Cameras and Evidence Com,” George Fenton, the vice president for federal and military programs at Taser told Defense One. ”The most difficult challenge to overcome is the military’s authorization to allow bases and stations to use the commercial cloud. We have seen this as the case amongst other Federal departments in addition to DOD. However, with FedRAMP certification, this may now be less of a problem.”

FedRAMP refers to the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program. It’s the government’s new bible on acquiring and managing cloud assets, and its one of the reasons Amazon can now sell its cloud services to both the CIA and the military. Fenton reports that “there is interest from military countries in Europe, Middle East, Africa, South and Central America and Asia” as well.

“The other challenge is government acceptance to use cameras. A few years ago, the typical response was ‘Heck no,’ or ‘No way!’ This is not so much the case today,” Fenton said, as all four military branches express interest.

For Smith, it’s a big future market but also a personal issue. ”My son just got back form Afghanistan this past weekend where he was serving in the Army. The equipment that they’re given to do the job over there doesn’t have standard stuff that a police agency would use. They’re doing police type work, yet all they have is the heavy machinery and the big guns.”

Cameras on officers could be even more useful in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq than on the streets of an American city. The U.S., he says, is giving up an opportunity to collect more data from the field by not getting more cameras out more quickly.

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