For the past few months, Axon has been reviewing its products and internal policies with an eye toward racial equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Companies across the tech industry undertook similar initiatives following the high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people this summer. But few are as close to law enforcement as Axon, with the ability to have a direct impact. The company, based Seattle and Scottsdale, develops technologies for police, such as Tasers and body cameras, intended to reduce violence and use of force.
Axon launched a “Sprint for Justice,” bringing together 200 engineers to develop eight new product features designed to improve justice and equity in law enforcement. For example, transcripts of body camera videos that detect use of racial slurs will be automatically ranked higher for supervisor review.
Another feature automatically flags body camera footage of escalating incidents, like when a firearm is removed from its holster or a Taser is used. Axon also updated its virtual-reality peer intervention training product and made it easier for civilians and police to submit social media and internet evidence.
“These are certainly not issues that can be solved entirely through technology,” said Jeff Kunis, the Axon chief technology officer. However, he said, the company believes technology can be “a massive part” of the solution.
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Axon is not alone in its optimism. For years, police reform efforts have partly hinged on technology’s promise to improve accountability, reduce bias, and make policing more equitable.
But studies show innovations in law enforcement tech don’t necessarily move the needle on those issues, and experts say the tools are only as effective as the policies governing them.
Body cameras, in particular, were seen as a powerful tool for reform when police departments began testing them six years ago. Companies like Axon, law enforcement officials, and activists all hoped that cameras would make officers behave more equitably and oversight would be easier with a record of events.
Today, police across the country are equipped with body cameras but we have not seen a significant reduction in disproportionate acts of violence against people of color. Body cameras were in-use during several of the most high-profile police killings of the past year and the footage did not often lead to meaningful discipline against the officers involved.
“When you consider, what is the long-term effect of bias training, cameras, everything else, none of those has had a significant impact on deadly force when you look long-term,” said Chris Burbank, a former police chief who serves as VP of Law Enforcement Strategy for the nonprofit Center for Policing Equity. “All of the technology, everything that’s come and gone in the last 30 years, it’s a pretty flat trend line when you look at the number of officer-involved shootings across the country.”
Data on whether body cameras reduce excessive use of force or bias are mixed. A 2019 study by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences randomly assigned body cameras to a portion of more than 2,000 Washington, D.C., officers for a seven-month period. It found that the cameras did not meaningfully change police behavior on a range of outcomes, including complaints and use of force. But a year-long study of about 400 officers with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department found a 37% reduction in use-of-force complaints against officers who were wearing body cameras.
One challenge stems from the wide range of policies that different departments use to govern the technology. In many cases, officers are allowed to review footage before writing their reports. Some departments give police broad discretion to decide when to turn on their cameras. Others have been known to withhold footage from the public.
A 2017 study by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, a progressive nonprofit, evaluated body camera policies at 75 law enforcement agencies across the country on eight criteria. They measured how accessible the footage is, how much discretion officers have over when to record, privacy, and other concerns. No department satisfied all of the criteria.
Despite inconclusive data, there is renewed interest in body cameras this year as police reform becomes an even bigger national issue. From small-town mayors to President-elect Joe Biden, officials are looking for new solutions to bias in law enforcement. Voters in more than a dozen cities approved police reform initiatives last week.
In Akron, Ohio, a measure passed requiring police to release camera recordings from use of force cases that result in death or serious injury to the public. It’s an example of the type of policy that police reform advocates say is necessary to make body cameras an effective transparency tool.
Other technological advances, like computer-generated police reports and in-vehicle GPS, have made modest improvements in accountability, said Burbank, of the Center for Policing Equity, but they “have not influenced it enough to say that they’ve changed the behavior.”
“[Technology] is a valuable tool and can help but you have to utilize it in a manner that actually works on the outcome of policing,” he said. “You have to be more focused on what is that outcome, as opposed to just documenting it.”