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How police body cameras became a budget battlefield

When it comes to body cameras, Taser has been the dominant player. But there's a low-cost rival making some noise.

Taser thought it had the New York Police Department's business in the bag.

The company, best known for its stun guns, also controls 80 percent of the market for police-worn body cameras. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the nation's largest police force -- by far, with about 35,000 officers -- would go the same way as so many other police departments.

Which is why it was a shocker that the NYPD instead chose a startup called Vievu.

Take a closer look at the deal, though, and you see a pretty obvious reason: Vievu's $6.4 million bid was roughly half the price of Taser's contract, which came in at about $12 million. Cost considerations like that have a way of making other factors -- such as Taser's high-end tech features -- take a back seat.

The NYPD win earned Vievu a massive amount of credibility as the low-cost alternative to Taser, a development likely to give greater purchasing flexibility to police departments bent on equipping more officers with body cameras.

Body cams have become a hot topic for cops. The devices could play a crucial role in rebuilding the public's trust in the police after a rash of controversial shootings across the country that have inflamed racial tensions. A Cambridge University study of British and US police showed that complaints against officers dropped by 93 percent when they were using body cameras. Last December, President Obama called for more body cameras.

Taser dominates the market for police body cameras, but has been facing challenges from a new rival.

Photo courtesy of Taser

"I think in 25 years all officers will be using a camera," Barak Ariel, the criminologist who led the Cambridge University study, said.

About 95 percent of police and sheriff's departments in major US cities and counties have plans to give their officers body cameras, according to a 2015 survey. That would be a big jump from the approximately 19 percent that at the time already had fully operational body camera programs. Adoption would surely get a boost if costs can be kept down.

Vievu's rise

The low-cost option is turning heads. In Arizona -- Taser's home state -- the Phoenix police department opted to buy Vievu's body cameras, which were $2.3 million cheaper than Taser's.

Florida's Miami-Dade County, meanwhile, purchased 1,500 body cameras from Vievu. Its evaluation report showed a virtual tie between the two companies' offerings -- Vievu had edged Taser by just 1 point -- but when it came to price, the startup beat Taser by 15 points.

"All of our meetings with police agencies over the last few years, the number one complaint is the cost of these systems," Oppenheimer analyst Andrew Uerkwitz said.

With Vievu, he said, more police departments are acknowledging that they're OK with cameras that record at lower quality than some phones and that they don't need all the bells and whistles that come from Taser.

"They're realizing ... what they don't really need, and they're focusing on price," Uerkwitz said.

Taser's (sticker) shock

Taser boasts technological advantages over Vievu: Its body cameras record in high definition and have a greater line of sight, and the company offers a sophisticated cloud storage system for both officers and attorneys to access.

The NYPD awarded a $6.4 million contract to Vievu over Taser.

Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Its latest body camera, with all its features, costs $599. Compare that with Vievu, which starts at $199.

Taser has argued that police departments should not compromise on body camera features -- which communities rely on to hold officers accountable -- to save a few million dollars.

Isaiah Fields, Taser's vice president for government affairs, has criticized Vievu's body cameras as "unproven, at best," arguing that Taser usually comes out on top in field tests.

"Ours work, and theirs is unproven," Fields said. "The value of a body camera program in protecting officers, protecting communities, is that it needs to be reliable, it needs to be tamper-proof, and it needs to work."

Vievu, a Seattle-based unit of Safariland, sees things differently.

"Numerous technology scoring sheets from law enforcement agencies around the country have rated the performance of our products as superior to Taser's and proven that Vievu can compete successfully with any competitor in this category," spokesman Tim Ragones said in a statement.

But a Cincinnati police report comparing Vievu's LE4 and Taser's Axon Body 2 criticized Vievu's field of view, video quality, battery life and storage software. While both use Microsoft's Azure cloud servers, the Cincinnati police said that Vievu's videos take significantly longer to upload -- in some cases failing.

"The Vievu software has crashed repeatedly requiring restarting, specifically when reviewing recorded video," the report said.

Rights, cameras, action

In New York, Taser wasn't going to give up easily. After it lost the deal to Vievu, it offered 1,000 body cameras to the NYPD for free, with hopes that the officers would compare the two devices.

The department has not accepted the offer and said it would not field-test any of the cameras. A department spokesman said Vievu was selected as the "best body camera option for the NYPD" after a two-year selection process.

As Taser fights to get the NYPD to change its mind, Vievu is celebrating the decision.

"We are proud to be able to offer best-in-class technology at prices that are attractive to the taxpayers of the city of New York," Ragones said.

After winning over the largest police department in the country, Vievu's next victories might not seem as shocking.