An Associated Press report is raising conflict-of-interest questions about law-enforcement officials' ties with Taser International, the leading manufacturer of electro-shock weapons and body cameras.
The investigation found that Taser has paid to fly police department chiefs to sponsored events in luxury hotels, asked them for advice on negotiations with city officials, and offered consulting jobs to recently retired chiefs—sometimes just months after their cities signed multi-millionaire deals with Taser.
The report came as Taser announced record sales of their body cameras and its video-storage software Evidence.com last week.
The market for body cameras was growing quickly even before President Obama proposed a $75 million plan to help police departments purchase them in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. It's worth noting that a nationwide Fusion investigation late last year found that body cameras have not helped police departments reduce use-of-force incidents.
Here's a look at some of the police chiefs under the most scrutiny for their ties to Taser.
Fort Worth, TX
Former Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead speaks about Taser International’s lapel camera programs at the company’s headquarters. Source: Taser Intertnational
- Chief: Jeffrey Halstead (2008 - Jan. 2015).
- Department: Fort Worth Police Department.
- Deal: $2.7 million no-bid contract for 400 body cameras.
- Post-retirement: Halstead said he hopes to become an official consultant for Taser International.
Records obtained by The Associated Press showed that former Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead lobbied extensively to close a multi-million body camera deal with Taser International just months before he left the police force.
As shown in these e-mails, Halstead kept a Taser sales representative updated about the progress of the negotiations.
“FYI… I was very successful today getting the first of my 2 approvals.” - March 14
“What can we do to help convince the city manager to sign with you prior to that? Let’s get creative.” - March 16
“I have ONE more small hurdle but I did my job this morning… someone should give me a raise.” - March 17
On March 25, the city council approved the contract.
Following the deal, Halstead spoke at Taser International's marketing events in Phoenix, Miami, and Boston. According to The Associated Press, the company covered his airfare and hotel stays for those appearances. He also agreed to participate in similar events in three other cities, but this time at the expense of Fort Worth taxpayers, the AP reported.
In this Taser video, the then-Police Chief says he “forcefully” supports the body camera technology and persuades other law-enforcement officials to implement them in their departments.
By the time of his retirement in January, the Fort Worth Police Department had one of the largest body camera programs in the country with 615 units. When asked about his ties with Taser, Halstead told the AP it is a “good business relationship” with a company that supports law enforcement.
Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said he doesn’t believe Halstead violated conflict of interest rules but he said the episode might reveal “gaps” that need to be filled.
Halstead will be attending three upcoming Taser marketing events in March.
- Chief: Ray Schultz (2005- Sep. 2013)
- Department: Albuquerque Police Department
- Deal: $1.9 million dollars no-bid deal for additional Taser International’s body cameras.
- Post-retirement: He became a Taser International’s consultant shortly after stepping down.
Former Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz was criticized after he accepted a consultant job with Taser International just months after he pushed for a multi-million body camera program in the department.
Following his retirement, an Albuquerque local station published a series of e-mail exchanges between Schultz and a company sales representative. In them, Taser asked the chief for guidance on upcoming meetings with city officials.
Before stepping down, Schultz sent an e-mail to the Taser representative saying “everything has been greased out” and offered help persuading city officials.
“I will still have the ear of the Mayor/CAO on department issues. If there’s anything I can do for you or Taser, especially to talk about my/our experiences, please let me know," he wrote.
The Albuquerque's Inspector General's office and the Internal Audit were assigned to conduct an independent review of Taser contractual relationship with the department. The results will be released in April. The Albuquerque Police Department declined to comment.
During Schultz’s tenure, ABPD became one of the pioneers of body camera technology and one of Taser International’s biggest customers. In 2010, Albuquerque became one of the first departments to use body cameras and the following year the former Chief ordered all sworn officers to carry Tasers. Schultz justified the purchases by citing safety concerns and the potential positive impact.
A 2014 Department of Justice review on Albuquerque police strongly criticized the department’s use of stun guns and body cameras manufactured by Taser.
Schultz told The Associated Press that he will attend another conference in March and Taser will pay for it.
New Orleans, LA
- Chief: Ronal Serpas (2010- August 2014)
- Department: New Orleans Police Department
- Deal: $1.4 million contract for 420 Taser cameras and storage software.
- Additional: Paid trips to Taser-sponsored conferences.
- Post-retirement: Consulting agreement with Taser International
Former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas also signed a consulting agreement with Taser International months after he stepped down. Since then, he has spoken at company-sponsored events in Canada and Arizona, the AP reported.
A couple months before his retirement, the city agreed to a $1.4 million contract with Taser for 420 cameras and storage software.
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.
In the past, Serpas has referred to the body cameras as “game changers for police departments here and around the world.”
Last year, Fusion found that 17 New Orleans police officers were investigated for not following body camera policies. The department also faced criticism when an officer turned off her camera in a police-involved shooting last year.
Salt Lake City, UT
At a department event, Salt Lake City Police Chief speaks about the benefits of body cameras with Taser International CEO Rick Smith.
- Chief: Chris Burbank (2006-present)
- Department: Salt Lake City Police
- Deal: 80 body cameras for $269,000.
- Additional: Paid trip to Taser-sponsored conferences.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank was also listed in The Associated Press article.
In June 2013, the department purchased 80 Taser body cameras and associated software through a surplus police department fund without following the city’s regular budget process. About the same time, Burbank appeared in a Taser International video promoting the company’s body cameras.
Taser International often includes officers' testimonies in promotional material.
Burbank has also been a guest speaker on Taser sponsored events like the Tech Summit. Taser paid for one trip he made to the company’s headquarters.
Burbank and the Salt Lake City Mayor’s office told the Salt Lake Tribune the chief did not violate any of the city's policies or procedures.
In 2014, the department purchased 200 additional body cameras.
Fusion obtained exclusive video of a party Taser International hosted for police chiefs in October.
When Fusion attended an annual conference of police chiefs in October, Taser International hosted a private party for the chiefs and their families at the Hilton's Hotel. It also sponsored a fundraiser event.
“This is a Super Bowl,” said Taser spokesperson Steve Tuttle during the conference. "This is where you capitalize on those relationships.”
Taser told Fusion that more than 1,200 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have purchased their body cameras and software program.
The company this week declined to provide details about its consulting deals and speaking gigs with current and retired law enforcement officials.
In a written response, Taser said the company’s sponsored events helped to "educate" law-enforcements experts and are a “critical tool” for the marketplace.
“Our top priority is to deliver the highest quality products with the highest ethical standards.”
Connie Fossi-Garcia is an investigative producer passionate about justice, immigration and stories that spark change.