Just a few years ago, many police were reluctant to wear body cameras, fearing that their every action would be scrutinized.
“There was a real hesitation at first,” said Officer Jeff Garwacki, who oversees the body camera program at the Fort Worth Police Department.
But as the devices have become more common, many police officers have come to rely on them. In Fort Worth, which has bought 800 body cameras from Taser and uses its Evidence.com service, Mr. Garwacki said most officers wanted to wear cameras at all times. “The body cameras are showing that the officers are doing what they say they’re doing,” he said.
Though research is limited, some studies suggest that the use of body cameras can reduce the use of force by officers and complaints by the public. In a study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, researchers found that when officers in Rialto, Calif., began wearing body cameras, use of force by officers dropped 59 percent, and complaints against officers dropped 87 percent.
“When police use body cameras and tell people that they are using them, it tends to produce better behavior by both the police and the public,” said Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Yet Mr. Marlow expressed concern that Taser had achieved such dominance in the body camera industry so quickly.
“The fact that a lot of police departments are familiar with Taser has created an inclination to go with them,” said Mr. Marlow. “Other companies are not getting the opportunity to show off their products.”
Some of Taser’s rivals, Mr. Marlow said, were developing software that made it easier to redact identifying features of people captured on camera, better protecting their privacy.
There is no doubt that Taser has managed to use its longstanding relationships with police departments, which have used the company’s stun guns for decades, to gain its early lead in the market for body cameras and related software.
But several competitors, and some city officials, accuse the company of cozying up to police chiefs to secure lucrative contracts. Nearly all of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States have bought Taser’s stun guns. “Taser is very much intertwined with police departments,” said Mark Strouse, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase.
In several instances around the country, Taser has either paid for the travel of police chiefs who went on to award the company contracts, or hired recently retired chiefs who had awarded Taser contracts.
In other cases, cities have skipped traditional steps like competitive bidding and city council approval, and awarded contracts to Taser with little oversight. Investigations by The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal turned up examples of such practices in Fort Worth, Memphis, Los Angeles and Chicago. The New Mexico attorney general has opened a criminal investigation of former Chief Ray Schultz of the Albuquerque police in connection with a $2 million contract his department awarded Taser.
“We think there’s an ongoing pattern of police chiefs getting lucrative consulting contracts after they retire, if they give Taser contracts,” said Robert McKeeman, chief executive of Utility, which makes a rival body camera.
Taser defended its sales tactics, saying they were commonplace, and said that many police departments were familiar with the company. It now makes law enforcement officials wait a year after leaving government service before it will hire them as consultants. Taser also said that while it was sometimes awarded sole-source bids, the departments doing the purchasing have often run a competitive process to test other cameras.
“If you’re going to solve customers’ needs, you have to have close relationships,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t think we did anything that was misleading.”
Taser was initially founded to sell electrical weapons. The Smith brothers’ partner, Jack Cover, was an engineer who worked with NASA and went on to develop the original technology used in the stun guns.
The company struggled for several years. Ill-fated brand extensions like the Auto Taser, a device that electrified steering wheels to prevent car theft, nearly bankrupted the company.
But sales picked up when Taser introduced a powerful electrical weapon, the M26, which resembled a handgun. Taser went public in 2001.
Sales soared in the years after, with thousands of law enforcement agencies buying Taser stun guns. Though the guns were designed to be nonlethal, many people shot with Tasers died, miring the company in controversy.
The company began selling video recorders that worked with Taser weapons in 2006, and it introduced its first body camera, the Axon Pro, in 2009.
Mr. Smith predicted that sales of Axon cameras and Evidence.com would soon dwarf sales of Taser’s weapons, and that the company would one day be renamed to reflect the growing prominence of its body camera business.
“We had a very successful business selling Taser weapons,” Mr. Smith said. “Now it’s not just about weapons, but about providing transparency and solving related data problems.”