Taser International, the stun-gun maker emerging as a leading supplier of body cameras for police, has cultivated financial ties to police chiefs whose departments have bought the recording devices, raising a host of conflict-of-interest questions.
A review of records and interviews by The Associated Press shows that Taser is covering airfare and hotel stays for police chiefs who speak at promotional conferences. It is also hiring recently retired chiefs as consultants, sometimes just months after their cities signed contracts with Taser.
Former Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead is among those who have fostered relationships with Taser and told The Associated Press that he hopes to begin working as a consultant for the company.
Over the past 18 months, Taser has reached consulting agreements with two such chiefs weeks after they retired, and it is in talks with a third who also backed the purchase of its products, the AP has learned. Taser is planning to send two of them to speak at luxury hotels in Australia and the United Arab Emirates in March at events where they will address other law enforcement officers considering body cameras.
The relationships raise questions of whether chiefs are acting in the best interests of the taxpayers in their dealings with Scottsdale, Arizona-based Taser, whose contracts for cameras and storage systems for the video can run into the millions of dollars.
Halstead’s relationship with Taser has long been known in Fort Worth, where he openly showed support for using the company’s body cameras and stun guns.
In 2009, after a mentally ill man died after being shocked for 49 seconds with a Taser by Fort Worth police officer, Halstead lobbied for the company to create a technical solution to the extended-deployment issues. Taser’s stun guns now shut off automatically after a five-second discharge.
“Chief Halstead was a thought leader on this issue and helped us develop this safety improvement,” a Taser spokesman told the Star-Telegram in 2009.
Fort Worth is also among the largest user of Taser’s Axon Flex cameras and last year Halstead successfully pushed for the signing of a major contract with Taser before a company quarterly sales deadline.
In an email to a Taser representative he wrote, “Someone should give me a raise.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price told the Star-Telegram that she is confident the contract with Taser was properly vetted and was not “pushed through” council.
“He followed proper channels and even had a committee in the police department review all the vendors that did body cams and they came out with Taser,” Price said. “Sometimes those contracts just move faster than others.”
Growing in popularity
The market for wearable cameras that can record arrests, shootings and other encounters has been growing fast since the killing last August of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. President Barack Obama has proposed a $75 million program for departments to buy the cameras to reduce tensions between officers and the communities they serve.
City officials and rival companies are raising concerns about police chiefs’ ties to Taser, not only in Fort Worth but in such cities as Albuquerque and Salt Lake City.
“Department heads need to be very careful to avoid that type of appearance of an endorsement in a for-profit setting,” said Charlie Luke, a Salt Lake City councilman. “It opens up the opportunity for competitors of these companies to essentially do what we’re seeing here — complaining about that public process.”
He said he was surprised when he learned last year that the city’s police department had purchased Taser cameras using surplus money, bypassing the standard bidding process and City Council approval. The department declined to say how much it has spent acquiring 295 body cameras and Taser’s Evidence.com video storage program and hasn’t responded to a month-old public records request.
The city’s police chief, Chris Burbank, said that his relationship with Taser, which includes company-paid travel to Taser-sponsored conferences, is appropriate. He recently recorded at the company’s request a promotional video in which he praised Evidence.com.
Burbank said he does not receive speaking fees and believes he hasn’t violated a city code prohibiting paid product endorsements on public time.
Taser says early adopters of technology are the best ones to discuss its benefits and drawbacks and share their experiences with colleagues.
“This is a pretty normal practice for police chiefs and other recently retired individuals to speak on behalf of the industry,” Taser chief marketing officer Luke Larson said.
Taser’s competitors say its cozy relationships are hurting their ability to seek contracts. They complain they have been shut out by cities awarding no-bid contracts to Taser and are being put at a disadvantage by requests for proposals that appear tailored to Taser’s products.
“Every time I do a presentation, as I’m standing there looking through the room, I wonder, ‘Who is tainted by Taser?’ ” said Peter Onruang, president of Wolfcom Enterprises, a California body camera maker.
Taser reported Thursday that orders for body cameras and Evidence.com soared to $24.6 million in the final three months of 2014 — a nearly fivefold increase from the same quarter in 2013. The company said it had contracts with 13 major cities and is in discussions or trials with 28 more.
A no-bid contract in Albuquerque and Taser’s relationship with the police chief prompted an investigation by the city’s inspector general.
City Council members demanded the inquiry after learning that Chief Ray Schultz, who had supported the $1.9 million contract for Taser cameras and storage, became a company consultant shortly after stepping down. A U.S. Justice Department investigation last year blasted Albuquerque’s rollout of the body cameras, saying it had been so hasty that officers had not been properly trained.
Today, Schultz speaks in an online promotional video about Albuquerque’s experience with Evidence.com. Although he has recently been hired as assistant chief in the Houston suburb of Memorial Villages, Schultz said he will be paid by Taser to speak at the international conferences in March.
Fort Worth connection
In Fort Worth, emails obtained by the AP under Texas’ open records law show that Halstead was seeking 400 more body cameras for officers last year and that Taser promised a discount if the deal could be approved before the end of the company’s sales quarter.
“Close of the month? I do not wear a cape or have x-ray vision you know,” Halstead wrote a Taser representative.
But over the next three weeks, Halstead successfully pushed the city to approve a no-bid contract worth up to $2.7 million.
In the following months, Taser had Halstead speak at events in Phoenix, Miami and Boston, covering his airfare and lodging, records show. The four-day Boston trip for Halstead and a companion cost Taser $2,445.
Halstead said he reached an oral agreement during the contract negotiations to travel to three other cities at Fort Worth’s expense to talk about his experience with Taser cameras. In one email, he told a Taser representative he believed he could persuade San Antonio to buy its cameras, “but my fee is not cheap! LOL.”
Halstead, who retired in January, said he hopes to become an official consultant before he travels to speak at overseas events in March.
Price said Halstead went through all of the right channels in dealing with Taser, but added the issue has prompted the city to do a review of its ethics policies, including trips made to to work with vendors.
“I think we need to look at trips,” Price said. “The trips he [Halstead] took were certainly legal, but we need to look if you should take trips with current vendors. But we need to take a look at the whole thing. It hasn’t been reviewed in several years.”
Star-Telegram staff reporter Caty Hirst and Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Don Thompson in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report, which includes information from Star-Telegram archives.
Halstead and Taser
Former Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead and Taser International had a close relationship before and after the city signed a contract to purchase body cameras last year. Email communications and travel expense reports obtained through a state open records request show how Halstead kept the company informed as he lobbied for the contract internally and accepted travel to events paid for by the company in the following months:
February 2014: Taser gives Fort Worth an estimate for providing 400 Axon body cameras and a five-year subscription to its Evidence.com storage program.
March 4, 2014: Taser salesman Andrew Grayson informs Halstead that the company will give a discount if the contract is signed by March 31. Halstead responds: “Close of the month? I do not wear a cape or have x-ray vision you know… I’m working it but losing millions to the Academy project hurt us bad.”
March 16: Grayson reiterates the March 31 deadline. “Our CFO and exec team agreed to the huge discount and net terms in order to get it in this quarter … I feel there is a 99.9 percent probability that this deal will be taken off the table — even if 24 hours short. That said, what can we do to help convince the city manager to sign with you prior to that? Let’s get creative!”
March 17: Halstead tells Grayson: “I have ONE more small hurdle but I did my job this morning …someone should give me a raise.” He writes another email telling Taser representatives the City Council will vote March 25 and “I have the votes.”
March 25: Fort Worth City Council approves contract worth up to $2.7 million over 5 1/2 years.
April 27-29: Taser pays for Halstead to attend a technology summit at its Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters. He delivers a speech, posted on Taser’s website, in which he praises its body cameras, Evidence.com and customer service.
June 10: Taser asks the city to adopt a software upgrade that would save officers’ time uploading video but cost an additional $108,000 annually. Halstead responds angrily: “It would have been MUCH easier if I would have known this when structuring the current contract.”
July 16-17: Taser pays airfare and lodging for Halstead to be a guest speaker at a marketing event in Miami.
July 26-30: Taser pays for Halstead and a companion to fly to Boston, where he is a guest speaker at a Taser use-of-force seminar.
Jan. 9, 2015: Halstead retires from the city of Fort Worth.
Feb. 19: Halstead helps host a Taser technology summit at California Highway Patrol headquarters in Sacramento, where 100 law enforcement officials come to learn about body cameras. He tells the AP that he hopes to become an “official consultant” for Taser before he travels to Australia and United Arab Emirates to speak at similar events in March.
Source: The Associated Press