Tonight at 7pm, the Providence City Council plans to consider a contract for new body cameras with TASER International, a company known for its shady tactics in winning body camera deals. The City of Providence plans to bypass competitive bidding to give the $290,000/year deal specifically to TASER.
To say that TASER is shady is an understatement, as its body-camera deals have been dogged with controversy around the country. The city of Orlando canceled bidding on body cameras after TASER was found to have paid Orlando police officers. A Cincinnati Police Department report criticizing the body cameras of one of TASER’s rivals was found to have originated with a TASER executive, whose name appears in digital records as the document’s author. A university study on body cameras turned out to have been set up in large part by TASER, which pitched the idea for the study and provided free body camera systems, though the study’s report never mentioned TASER’s contribution. In 2013, the Albuquerque police chief told a TASER sales rep that the city’s body camera contract had been “greased,” and then promptly switched to a consulting job with TASER, just before the city gave TASER the body-camera deal; he remains under criminal investigation. In Memphis, TASER hired the firm of the mayor’s campaign manager for public-relations work, though the contract was later canceled after it became controversial. A Fort Worth police chief successfully advocated for TASER to get the city’s body camera deal, and wrote on the side to TASER that “Someone should give me a raise” and “my fee is not cheap! LOL.”
The most commonly recurring scandal about how TASER wins body camera contracts is that the company wants the contracts awarded without competitive bidding, directly to TASER. As of October, TASER has succeeded in winning contracts with many of the nation’s top police departments, about half of them on a no-bid basis. The company says it doesn’t press for no-bid contracts and claims that’s what city officials want: their executive vice president of global sales says “To imply that we’re trying to convince agencies not go out and bid, that’s their decision, and we’re happy to compete in either scenario.” However, he also publicly argues that competitive bidding is a safety risk: “Would you feel comfortable sitting on an airplane, where every single part of the airplane was awarded to the lowest bidder? I wouldn’t.”
Needless to say, part of the standard competitive bidding process is checking that the products being offered are technically good enough — there’s no reason to think that a no-bid process would lead to higher quality, and no-bid deals like the one proposed in Providence are certainly more expensive for the taxpayer than competitive bidding would be. Despite TASER’s denials that it prefers no-bid deals, the Wall Street Journal discovered emails showing that TASER “coached local officials on how to avoid common bidding procedures, allowing it to secure lucrative contracts without facing competition.” TASER’s deals have often been criticized for using a procedure called “piggybacking,” where a city designates a company as a vendor and offers to use the same contract that the vendor signed with a different city, without further negotiation. The use of piggybacking to give body-camera contracts to TASER has been criticized in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles as a bad government-purchasing practice. Despite this, Providence is planning to give TASER a no-bid, “sole source” contract for body cameras which piggybacks on TASER’s contract with San Antonio.
In Providence, I haven’t found any official who can say why TASER’s contract is being given on a no-bid basis, although as usual, TASER has hired a lobbyist (William Farrell, who worked for former mayor Taveras). TASER’s body cameras are in some ways technically worse than other vendors’ cameras. When Chicago gave TASER a no-bid deal for body cameras, the Chicago police spokesman gave the pathetic excuse that “no other company could bundle body cameras and Tasers.” Here in Providence, we get no explanation, for a 5-year, $290,000 per year no-bid contract that is expected to be renewed.
Although concerns have been raised about the city of Providence going bankrupt, this contract spectacularly fails to protect the city. The contract between TASER and San Antonio, which Providence is proposing to adopt, says that a company owned by TASER will have responsibility for storing all body camera recordings, and the contract specifically says that the city can be denied access to existing body camera recordings if the city goes bankrupt. This is not an adequate way of writing a contract. The contract has “privacy” provisions that protect the police department’s privacy, but not the privacy of Providence residents. There is nothing clear in the contract to bar TASER from trying to profit off whatever personal data of individuals in Providence may be captured by police body cameras.
TASER also has serious conflicts of interest which make them a dubious choice for body cameras. As a company, TASER is best known for its electroshock weapons of the same name. They are promoted as a less lethal alternative to guns, but in fact Tasers do kill sometimes. Amnesty International found that over 500 people have died in the United States in Taser-involved incidents. Naturally, TASER as a company has tried to suggest that its Taser device doesn’t lead to death; when researcher Zian Tseng argued that Tasers could cause heart rhythm problems, the company asked him to reconsider and offered to fund his future research. But regardless of what you think of how lethal Tasers are, the fact that TASER has faced lawsuits about deaths (which it has sometimes lost) means that TASER has a conflict of interest in wanting to oversee recordings of police activity. TASER’s body camera contracts give TASER the responsibility for storing recordings. So TASER could arrange to “lose” the body camera recording of an incident where Tasers are accused of having caused someone’s death, or where there are accusations of police using Tasers for torture or to cause needless pain. To have TASER involved in body cameras is to move further away from preventing abuses.
Besides, the Providence Police Department’s policy on body cameras is not designed well to prevent police abuses. As the RI ACLU has pointed out, the current Providence policy on body cameras does not say anything about giving civilians the right to see body camera recordings, even in incidents where you may have concerns about how a police officer interacted with you. The rules are not very strict on when exactly police can turn their cameras on and off, and there’s too much room for a police officer to choose not to use their body camera. In fact, under the Providence police department’s policy, police officers are allowed to use personal recording devices like cellphones even when they do not turn on their official body camera, and the officer would have some ability to control whether to give the department the cellphone recording, which makes it too easy for officers to release the recording only when it’s in their favor. A study by the RAND Corporation and the University of Cambridge found that body cameras help decrease police use of force, but only when officers had to keep the body cameras turned on almost all the time — if officers chose when to turn the cameras on and off, they were more likely to use force than if there was no camera. Some community advocates distrust body cameras because, if body cameras are used more often when the police find it convenient, they may actually be a tool for more abuse rather than a way to prevent abuse.
It’s important to get things right — both in how the body camera policy is written and in how the contract for cameras is given out — but in both these areas, Providence is rushing ahead with a flawed approach instead of getting things right. The City Council will consider the no-bid contract at 7pm Thursday.
UPDATE: At the City Council meeting on Thursday, January 5, the no-bid contract was referred to the Finance committee (an earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that this meeting would include a vote on the contract). I have added some links to this article since it was published.