The protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 started a national discussion about police body cameras. But data shows that it took some time — and money — for law enforcement to really become a big market for the technology.
Editor's note: This is the first part in a series about body cameras in the U.S. To follow along with the series, go here.
After police fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in the latter half of 2014, his family publicly declared that every police officer in the U.S. should wear body cameras.
That moment is widely cited as the moment that propelled law enforcement agencies across the country to start buying the devices. And data indeed shows a marked rise in body camera purchases after Brown's death and the subsequent nationwide protests — but the flurry of body camera purchases didn't reach its peak until about a year and a half later, after the Obama administration introduced grants through the Department of Justice to help law enforcement agencies pay for them.
One way to trace the timeline of body cameras in use is through historical sales data. Axon, formerly known as Taser, is the largest provider of body cameras in the U.S., and has been selling the devices to police departments in the country since 2010. It is also publicly traded, meaning it reports its revenue to federal regulators four times a year.
Those filings, illustrated in the chart above, show only a small uptick in Axon's video segment in the next several quarters after the events in Ferguson. The real momentum began in the second quarter of 2016, after the DOJ began giving out grants to help police departments start using the technology.
A review of bid data in Government Navigator, a database from the Center for Digital Government*, shows a similar trend — a big rise in body camera purchasing activity in 2015, followed by a peak in the middle of 2016.
Of course, one confounding factor in pinpointing the importance of the grants in kick-starting body camera use is the sheer length of time it takes for government to purchase technology. In general, it's common for state and local agencies to take a year or more to actually finalize and release a request for proposals for some kind of technology. So it's likely that much of the activity shown in Navigator began earlier than the graph suggests.
The window of 2015-16 is when the majority of the 25 largest police departments in the country by officer count started purchasing body cameras. Five of those departments had body cameras before 2015, a full 13 purchased them in 2015 or 2016, and six have purchased them since 2016. One — the police departments in Indianapolis — has tried out body cameras with intent to deploy them soon.
Among this top segment of the market, Axon dominates. All but two of the largest police departments that use body cameras have chosen Axon.
|Police Department||Body-Worn Camera Vendor||Date of first purchase|
|New York City||Axon||April 2017|
|Los Angeles||Axon||August 2015|
|Washington, D.C.||Axon||November 2015|
|Las Vegas||Axon||2014 (month unavailable)|
|San Francisco||Axon||November 2014|
|San Antonio||Axon||February 2016|
|San Diego||Axon||June 2014|
|Indianapolis||None yet, pilot program only|
|Fort Worth||Axon||March 2015|
Since 2016, as the Navigator data shows, body camera purchases have leveled off a bit. In 2017, bid activity dropped below 2015 levels, and then in 2018 they rose back up again. The bid data doesn't capture the entire market, but the data set consists of more than 300 RFPs and provides a good window into trends over time.
And one trend emerges from the data very clearly — body cameras are no longer a rarity. For law enforcement agencies in the U.S., they are a fact of life.
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.
**Editor's note: The table of large police departments has been corrected to include body camera purchases in the cities of Jacksonville, Fla., and Boston. Axon declined to provide the month of each city's purchase, so the purchase months for those two cities are approximate.
Moriah Chace contributed to this story.