Last weekend, rioting and protests erupted in the St. Louis, Mo., suburb of Ferguson following the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by police.
According to one witness, Brown had his back turned to the officer, and his hands in the air, when shot -- then was shot several more times after turning to plead with the officer to "stop shooting." The police officer offered a different account, one in which Brown assaulted him in his police car, attempted to seize the officer's gun, and was shot during this attempt.
Whichever version of the incident turns out to be correct, the addition of one small piece of electronic equipment would have helped to clarify events.
If the officer's squad car had been equipped with a dashboard video camera, or if the officer himself had been wearing an on-body video camera such as the AXON device developed by TASER International (NASDAQ:TASR), it's likely there would be no dispute as to what actually happened on Saturday -- or who was to blame. But it wasn't, and he wasn't -- and so there's no clear record of the event.
Cue the lawyers
Absent conclusive video evidence of what happened in Missouri last weekend, it's a near certainty that Brown's family will soon sue the Ferguson Police Department. According to the independent, nonprofit Police Foundation, allegations of excessive force by police officers "cost local communities tens of millions of dollars in legal damages" from such lawsuits every year.
For example,, allegations of various levels of excessive force by police officers in Minneapolis cost the city $14 million in legal bills and settlements with plaintiffs over the course of 95 lawsuits between 2006 and 2012. In Oakland, Calif., 417 lawsuits settled between 1990 and 2014 cost taxpayers $74 million in payouts. (The cost of settling a lawsuit across both time periods, in these two cities, thus averaged about $170,000 per lawsuit settlement).
And those cities may have gotten off cheap. In San Jose, Calif., one lawsuit filed earlier this year is expected to cost the city $900,000. A lawsuit involving a wrongful death caused by a police officer might cost the city of Ferguson even more.
Result: When you add it all up, TASER estimates that each year U.S. law enforcement organizations pay out more than $2.5 billion in legal settlements for various complaints -- and because these settlements are financed by taxpayers, you get stuck with the bill.
Keeping an eye on Big Brother
When you consider the costs -- in lawsuits filed and in settlements paid out, in damage to local businesses from rioting, and in the loss of trust and cooperation of the citizenry -- it's clear that complaint settlements are a phenomenon that needs fixing.
This would be true whether the shooting in Ferguson turns out to be a case of a police officer defending himself from attack, or one of a police officer assaulting and killing a youth he was supposed to be protecting. Either way, society has an interest in making tragedies such as this one as rare as possible.
Taser's AXON camera could help with that. Worn on an officer's uniform -- on a shirt collar, cap, or even a pair of sunglasses -- the AXON camera records full-color video of everything happening in an officer's field of view, then uploads the video for storage onto TASER's EVIDENCE.com cloud-storage service.
A yearlong scientific study (link opens a PDF) by Cambridge University, reviewing the Rialto, Calif., police department's use of AXON cameras from 2012-2013, found that AXON deployments reduced the incidence of citizen complaints against the police by 87.5% -- that's a drop from roughly two complaints per month to just three complaints per year.
Working off of TASER's estimate of $2.5 billion in legal settlements for complaints against the police, a similar reduction in complaints could could yield savings of as much as $2.19 billion annually for police departments. That's a big incentive for police departments to deploy AXON.
Equally as important were Cambridge's findings regarding AXON's effect upon police officers' behavior, indicating the device is effective in protecting the populace. Video footage from AXON revealed that the use of force (excessive or otherwise) by police officers wearing AXON devices declined by 59% over the course of the study. Indeed, in three months out of the 12-month term of the research, AXON revealed no evidence of officers in this city of 100,000 resorting to the use of force at all.
TASER International CEO Rick Smith has publicly predicted that benefits such as these will result in "body-worn video cameras [becoming] standard equipment [for police officers nationwide] within the next 5-10 years."
Rich Smith owns shares of Taser International. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.