- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Taser International, the company best known for making electroshock weapons used by law enforcement, announced a new program to distribute free body-worn cameras to police officers across the country.

The announcement comes as concern over fatal police and civilian interactions has prompted police departments to increasingly turn to the technology in order to promote accountability and transparency. Taser, which also announced Wednesday it is changing its name to Axon, is offering the equipment for free as well as training and video storage services at no cost for up to a year.

“We are going ‘all-in’ to empower police officers to more safely and effectively do their jobs and drive important social change by making body cameras available to every officer in America,” Rick Smith, founder and CEO of Axon, said in a statement. “We believe these cameras are more than just tools to protect communities and the officers who serve them.”

Despite increased calls for police departments to use the body-worn camera technology to record interactions with civilians — providing the potential for indisputable evidence of what happened during an encounter — civil rights and privacy rights advocates expressed skepticism of the announcement.

Some worried the free giveaway would prompt departments to start deploying cameras without first developing policies to regulate their use.

“Without carefully crafted policy safeguards, these devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools of accountability,” said Wade Henderson, president of the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “If departments accept this offer, they must develop and implement body camera policies that uphold accountability and protect the rights of those being recorded.”

Others were concerned about the rapid spread of surveillance technology.

“Communities have to ask what software will be run on the video that these cameras gather,” said Clare Garvie, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. “Taser has long forecasted the use of real-time face recognition on live body camera video. Picture a world where the face of every man, woman, and child is scanned and identified when they pass an officer on the street. This may be the first step towards that world.”

Sarah Morris, director of the Open Internet Policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute, cautioned that the “tendency to view body worn cameras as a panacea for police accountability ignores the many challenges and complexities that drive the need for that accountability in the first place.”

While the equipment and first year of video storage might be free, experts also cautioned that video storage and maintenance can be a major cost to departments in the long run.

“Hardware is a relatively small part of the cost of cameras — and more importantly, without taking the time to do it right, and implement good policies, cameras will do more harm than good,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

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