An abundance of conflict-of-interest questions have been raised regarding the financial ties between police chiefs and Taser International. Taser has made a name for itself as a stun-gun maker and is now branching out as a lead supplier of body cameras for police.
ABC News reported that a records review has revealed that Taser has paid for airfare and hotel stays for police chiefs speaking at promotional conferences. It is also employing recently retired police chiefs as consultants. In some instances, it has hired a few for chiefs just a few months after the cities they worked for signed contracts with the company.
These relationships have raised concerns on whether police chiefs are looking out for the best interests of taxpayers and residents. Taser, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, has contracts for cameras and video storage systems that run into the millions of dollars.
Since the police-related killing last year of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the market for body cameras has skyrocketed. In an effort to reduce tensions between police and citizens of their communities, President Barack Obama has proposed a $75 million program for law enforcement department to use to buy the equipment.
Charlie Luke, a Salt Lake City councilman, was surprised to find out that last year the city’s police department used surplus money to buy Taser cameras and video storage program. The department bypassed the standard bidding process, foregoing City Council approval. Thus far, police authorities have not responded to a public record request regarding how much was spent on the equipment.
“Department heads need to be very careful to avoid that type of appearance of an endorsement in a for-profit setting,” said Luke. “It opens up the opportunity for competitors of these companies to essentially do what we’re seeing here, complain about the public process.”
According to ABC News, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank receives company paid travel to Taser-sponsored conferences but he feels it is appropriate. He said he does not receive speaking fees and that he has not violated any city codes prohibiting paid product endorsements on public time. Burbank stated he accepts the speaking invitations to promote the best ways of using body cameras to fellow officers. However, Councilman Luke wonders what value Salt Lake City gets from the police chiefs trips.
Despite competitors’ complaints that Taser allegedly taints the contract process with these relationships, a Taser spokesman said the company has no control over how cities decide to award contracts. It also said the reason it asks certain police chiefs to speak at their conferences is that early adopters of stun-gun and body camera technology tend to be the best ones to discuss its benefits and drawbacks, as well as 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,” said Luke Larson, Taser Chief of Marketing Officer.