IOWA CITY, Iowa – 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.
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A review of records and interviews by The Associated Press show 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.
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.
As the police chief in Fort Worth, Texas, successfully pushed for the signing of a major contract with Taser before a company quarterly sales deadline, he wrote a Taser representative in an email, "Someone should give me a raise."
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.
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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, New Mexico, 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. He said he accepts Taser's speaking invitations to promote the best ways of using body cameras. But Luke, the city councilman, questioned what value Salt Lake City gets from Burbank's trips.
A Taser spokesman said the company has no control over how cities decide to award contracts. 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.
Former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas confirmed he signed a Taser consulting agreement after he stepped down in August and has spoken at company-sponsored events in Canada and Arizona. Less than a year earlier, in December 2013, the city agreed to a $1.4 million contract with Taser for 420 cameras and storage.
In an interview with the AP, Serpas declined to detail how the consulting deal came about but said it did not violate a state ethics law because he is not lobbying his former employer. He also said he was not on the committee that recommended Taser for the contract.
Serpas said his role is to speak about how technology affects policing and not to promote products. Taser marketing materials reviewed by AP, however, quote him as calling the company's Axon cameras and Evidence.com "a game changer for police departments here and around the world."
In Fort Worth, emails obtained by the AP under Texas' open records law show that then-Police Chief Jeffrey 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. He kept Taser representatives aware of his progress, adding at one point that he deserved a raise.
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 from the department in January, said he hopes to become an official consultant before he travels to speak at overseas events in March. He said he discussed such an arrangement during the end of his city employment, but had nothing promised.
He defended his ties to Taser as a "good business relationship" with a company that supports law enforcement.
Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said he does not believe Halstead violated rules that prohibit employees from accepting job offers or other benefits that might influence the performance of their official duties. But he said the episode might reveal "gaps that we need to fill" in the code.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Don Thompson in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.