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Unrest in Baltimore means big business for Taser

The past year of debate and strife in cities nationwide has pushed law enforcement agencies to begin adopting body cameras. The result: shares of body camera makers are soaring.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are adopting body cameras. George Frey/Getty Images

Protesters on the street are demanding justice. Police are on TV pleading for peace. Taser is rolling in the dough.

The Scottsdale, Ariz., company that makes stun guns and body cameras for law enforcement officers has long been ignored by Wall Street for its still-debated controversial solutions to otherwise potentially deadly clashes between police and civilians.

Taser's stock began surging last summer as major protests ignited in Missouri and New York over alleged police brutality and the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers. As lawmakers from across the country continue searching for answers, Wall Street has found Taser.

The company's shares have risen more than 160 percent since the August shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. -- better than some of the largest tech companies in Silicon Valley, including Apple, whose iPhones propelled its shares more than 36 percent over the same time, and video streaming service Netflix, whose shares have risen nearly 25 percent. Shares of a Taser competitor, Digital Ally, have risen nearly fourfold.

Wall Street isn't making a blind bet. Public perception and government money have shifted toward a seemingly inevitable future of placing a body camera on every police officer in the country. The sudden move has surprised veterans of law enforcement who have become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of police reform.

"If you had said to me 20 years ago that someday police would want to be wired up with body cameras, I would've said, 'Boy, that would've never happened,'" said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington, DC-based think tank for police chiefs.

On Friday alone, Taser's and Digital Ally's stocks each jumped almost 10 percent after the Justice Department announced a $20 million pilot program to fund police departments across the country with body cameras -- devices designed to be worn by law enforcement officers and record investigations and encounters. Wall Street investors are betting companies like Taser, which makes two of the most popular body cameras, will benefit from the national outcry for reform.

The latest protests are over the death of Freddie Gray, a man who died while in the custody of the Baltimore Police nearly two weeks ago. On Friday, six police officers were indicted on charges related to his death. When Gray's family members responded, they pleaded for law enforcement reforms across the country.

Taser said it's ready to respond.

"This is about positioning yourself to be at the right place at the right time," said company spokesman Steve Tuttle. "Sometimes it takes national, tragic incidents to bring this availability to the public's eye."

Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New Orleans, Fort Worth and Charlotte are some of the big-city police departments in the US that Tuttle rattles off that use Taser's "Axon" body cameras, which can be worn either on shirt lapels, or attached to the shoulder or sunglasses. He says departments in other major cities -- including New York and Chicago -- are among the hundreds currently testing its in-demand cameras, which cost between $400 to $600 apiece.

More than 3,000 law enforcement agencies globally use Taser, which counted 500 new accounts in the past year. That brings the number of cameras to more than 41,000 in the field from 30,000, and that's just in the past three months.

The tide appears to be turning. The Los Angeles Police Commission voted Tuesday to equip all officers with body cameras, making LA the largest US city to take this step. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced late last year that the LAPD will be outfitted with 7,000 body cameras to improve transparency.

George Frey/Getty Images

There's also neighboring Rialto, Calif., which was the first police department in the country to equip all its officers with body cameras, Tuttle said. Following the rollout, the number of excessive-force complaints dropped from 24 in 2012 to just 3 in 2013 for the Southern California city of about 100,000 people. A study on the Rialto police's use of cameras by the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology last year gave the technology much-needed credibility.

"The cameras provide transparency and improve behavior on both sides of the badge," Tuttle said. "Law enforcement become more professional and it ratchets down a suspect's behavior dramatically."

Critics warn that no one technology can be a panacea to the country's crisis of confidence in law enforcement. Among concerns: when police will turn these devices on, how the public will get access to recordings, and the privacy of young people whose images could be recorded.

"Technology is just a tool," said Peter Bibring, head of police issues at the American Civil Liberties Union in California. He said the devices ultimately could help repair public trust of police, but only if they're used as a tool of transparency. "It's a question of how much it's used, as much as what it is."

From stun gun to camera ready

Taser was founded in 1993, marketing a device that's designed to be held and used like a gun but offers a nonlethal alternative. The device shoots out two wires charged with an electrical signal that, when the wires embed in a person, gives the victim a significant jolt. The technology is often called a "stun gun."

The devices were hailed as a safer alternative than shooting a suspect, but Taser ultimately faced criticism that the device was turning into another weapon, like a baton, that could be overused.

In 2009, Taser began shipping a new device, called the "Axon" body camera, to law enforcement. A tiny police department in Aberdeen, S.D., was the first to use those cameras. At the time, the devices were criticized for their expense and potential for infringing civil liberties. Not so much anymore.

George Frey/Getty Images

In many jurisdictions, officers are required to turn on their cameras, whose battery can last up to half a day, for traffic stops, possible searches and dangerous situations. The recorded data is protected by special algorithms and cannot be deleted, Taser said.

"We had to use technology to either protect life or protect truth," Tuttle said. "We're still trying to do both."

Taser devices represent about 95 percent of the market, the company says, competing with firms like Digital Ally and another called Vievu.

"What's driven this technology is citizens are now recording police activity, so the police feel the need to provide their own officers with cameras to record their own actions," said Wexler, whose organization submitted guidelines to the Department of Justice on how body cameras should be used.

One example: The ACLU on Thursday announced a smartphone app designed to help users record and upload encounters with the police to the Internet.

Merely buying body cameras won't be enough. Wexler and the ACLU's Bibring agree that for the devices to be effective, police departments must work with their communities to set expectations and guidelines for how they'll be used.

"It's a paradigm shift," Taser's Tuttle said, "and we are a part of that, as this could potentially become standard equipment for officers in the future."