FOX 13 Investigation: In USF study on body cams, Taser International worked behind the scenes

- In January 2014, criminology researchers at the University of South Florida announced they were teaming up with the Orlando Police Department to study the effects of police body cameras.

Starting in March 2014, around 50 officers wore the body cameras. Another 50 officers who had similar shifts, patrol areas, and numbers of prior use-of-force incidents would be the control group.

After a year, researchers would compare stats of officers who wore the cameras with those who did not. They hypothesized that, just as other studies on body cameras had shown, use-of-force incidents would go down.

The analysis was an important one for OPD, which was considering the hefty investment into body cameras -- one that could cost the department more than a million dollars in the first few years.

It was also an important one nationally.

During the year of the study, police body cameras emerged as one of the most intensely debated aspects of American law enforcement. There were questions about policy, practices, and limitations of the technology itself. As a number of high-profile police shootings brought a spotlight onto police use-of-force policies, public support began to tilt in favor of the cameras as a tool for transparency and accountability.

Millions of dollars of taxpayer money was in play. Body camera companies rushed to win public contracts before law enforcement agencies signed with a competitor.

Last October, USF announced the results of their study. Researchers said their analysis showed a reduction in the use of force among officers who wore the cameras. They also said serious citizen complaints against those officers went down, too, although the study does not say how they determined which citizen complaints were “serious.”

"As a society, we can certainly advocate for agencies, law enforcement agencies to adopt these body-worn cameras,” lead researcher Wesley Jennings told FOX 13 when the findings were announced.

Jennings’ article, which he co-authored with USF professor Lori Fridell and a dissertation student, was published in the Journal of Criminal Justice and concludes by suggesting that law enforcement agencies consider ways to find funding or “reallocate existing resources” to implement body camera technology.

Contracts for body camera systems can cost millions of dollars.

While the article does not disclose any involvement by a body camera company, it says OPD officers wore Taser International’s Axon body cameras. Soon the company’s press releases to its investors mentioned the study. The reduction of use of force was “when the Axon body cameras were in use,” the company said.

Taser International played a key role in the study, a FOX 13 investigation has found. The company pitched the idea for the research, brokered the partnership between USF and OPD, and paid for the body camera systems.

Researchers would not interview for the story. In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Lara Wade said Taser International was not involved in the design or implementation of the study, nor the interpretation of results, but acknowledged the company’s involvement.

“They linked officials at Orlando P.D. to the USF researchers and, to facilitate Orlando’s ability to participate in the study, gave Orlando P.D. 50 [Axon] cameras,” Wade said. “Neither USF nor the researchers received any funding from Taser to conduct the study.”

Taser International told FOX 13 that it provided online evidence storage for the year. A year-long contract for around 50 Taser cameras, with online evidence storage, can approach $100,000, based on other agencies' contracts for the cameras.

OPD had yet another answer. “The cameras were not put out to bid by OPD because they were acquired by the University of South Florida in an agreement between the University and Taser,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

USF refused to clarify the discrepancy.

Geri Pearson, a trustee with the Committee on Publication Ethics, says readers have the right to know about potential conflicts of interest. “We support that sponsored studies need to be open and completely clarified. It needs to be a disclosure,” she said. “It’s important because [research] has policy implications.” 

USF would not answer any other questions -- including those about OPD employee Brian Cechowski, who runs the agency’s body camera program.

Cechowski is the technology coordinator with the Orlando Police Department. He talked about the USF study -- and the benefits of body cameras -- in multiple presentations and interviews.

"What you're saying are positive things. You haven’t -- have there been negative things?" a WOFL anchor asked Cechowski in an interview about the body camera study. “Not really,” he replied.

Cechowski moonlights as a consultant for Taser International, a FOX 13 investigation has found.

Until this story, Cechowski’s outside employment had never been disclosed publicly. An OPD spokeswoman said neither Cechowski nor Chief John Mina would answer questions about the apparent violation of city and state ethics laws, which prohibit someone who has a role in public purchasing from working for a current or potential city contractor.

Cechowski, who earns around $94,000 a year with OPD, was also hired by Taser International as a “consultant implementation specialist,” to help other agencies -- such as the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office -- start using their new body camera technology.

Cechowski’s relationship with the vendor included other perks, too. He was a guest speaker at a Taser event for law enforcement officials hosted at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and got VIP tickets to a Taser-sponsored party at Hard Rock Live in Orlando when a law enforcement conference was in town. And he coordinated the side gig with Taser through his city email address, which he also used to communicate with Taser reps about needed repairs and technical issues with the officer’s cameras during the body camera study.

Josh Isner, the VP of Taser International, said the company hired Cechowski soon after the body camera study began because he became a “subject matter expert on the technology,” noting Cechowski would have had to get permission from his commanders to do off-duty work.

Taser International, which has quickly emerged as a dominant player in the body camera market, has also been under increasing public scrutiny for its practice of hiring former law enforcement officials who played key roles in their agency’s decisions about purchasing body cameras.  

On April 30 last year, the scrutiny reached a new level. The state auditor in New Mexico said there was evidence of public corruption relating to the purchase of body cameras by the largest law enforcement agency there; the report came out after revelations that former Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz picked up a consulting gig with the company after lining up a $2 million, no-bid contract for body cameras.

Schultz denied wrongdoing. So did Taser International. But that day, it released a rare public statement about its business dealings.

“While we expect every official we interact with -- including municipal, state, and federal government officials -- to adhere to their respective polices around procurement and other interaction with vendors, we have revised our internal policy,” attorney Doug Klint said in the statement.

From that day forward, the company would be implementing a one-year cooling off period for hiring former law enforcement leaders as consultants.

As it turns out, that internal rule change did not apply to current government employees.

Four days later, current law enforcement leader Cechowski, who holds the rank of master patrol officer, stood next to Chief John Mina as they made their case before city commissioners for investing nearly $2 million in the body cameras. Cechowski talked about the agency’s experiences with the cameras as commissioners passed around the Taser cameras that had been worn by officers.

“It’s a textbook conflict of interest,” says attorney Roberta Flowers, a former federal prosecutor in public corruption. “I need to make sure this is the appropriate vendor and I'm influencing that decision. We have a conflict."

“It's really one of those 'duh' moments,” she added.

Isner estimated consultants are paid around $250 a day, plus expenses, for meals and travel.
Taser also hired another officer, Anna Melnick, from OPD. Melnick did not respond to an interview request, and it’s not clear what role she had in the department’s body camera technology, if any. OPD said she had the required outside for outside employment.

OPD follows the city’s ethics code, which says employees can’t work for a current or potential city vendor if that employee has any influence within the process used to determine who gets the public’s money.

The department refused to answer any questions about why Cechowski was able to work for the company. Isner also said Cechowski’s employment is on pause because the department put the body camera contract out to bid, and Taser bid for it.

A spokesperson only said Cechowski has "no involvement in OPD's Body-Worn Camera bid process."

Flowers said there’s a problem with that assertion.

"You don't escape that conflict of interest by saying, 'I ultimately don't make that decision. Somebody else makes that decision,'" Flowers said.

Just before the close of business on the day this story went to air, OPD answered one other question: Cechowski did not have an “Authorization for Outside Employment” form filled out before he started working for Taser International. “However, he has one now,” a spokeswoman said in an email to FOX 13.

The form has multiple signatures from his supervisors, authorizing his outside work, dated the week of February 22. It happens to be the same week FOX 13 aired a story involving Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco’s contract with Taser International.

MORE QUESTIONS

The published study did not include other considerations for law enforcement agencies who adopt body cameras, such as the issue of officers not activating their body cameras --an issue that’s been raised in OPD’s recent Citizen Review Board meetings.

It also did not include mention of any technical issues with the technology -- something that was noted in researchers’ executive report on the body camera study, which was released by the city of Orlando.

USF researchers are quoted in some early news articles at the outset of the OPD  study as saying Taser paid for some of the cameras, but when FOX 13 asked them for an interview about why that information was not disclosed in the journal article, they were unable to comment.

When reached by phone, Fridell said she was “under orders” to direct FOX 13 to a spokesperson for the university. Jennings responded to an email with the same directive; FOX 13 was unable to reach Matthew Lynch, a dissertation student who worked on the study.

Matt DeLisi, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Criminal Justice, says at the time USF researchers submitted the paper, the journal and its parent organization, Elsivier, did not have “extensive” conflict of interest policies in place, and that it was up to the authors to disclose that information. He says that’s about to change.

"Currently, Elsevier is developing much more extensive conflict of interest statements where this type of information would be expected to be disclosed."

“It’s not a bad thing for industry to pay for those kinds of equipment, but it has to be acknowledged,” said Pearson, with the Committee for Publication Ethics.

She says sponsorship carries the potential to alter the course of research. “The overarching principle that you want to keep in mind is that you want to be transparent to readership,” she said. “It would have been as simple as a simple statement.”

The university’s prepared statement said neither the university nor researchers, received any funding “to conduct the study.” However, a spokesman refused to answer whether Taser International made any other donations to the university or the USF Foundation, apart from the study. (The company said it has “absolutely no record” of other contributions to the university.)

The Tampa Police Department recently wrapped up their participation in a second phase of the USF research; the results have yet to be released. A TPD spokeswoman said the department used a competitive bid process to buy  60 cameras with a five-year contract from Taser International.

“There were discounts built into the pricing to be competitive,” said spokeswoman Andrea Davis. “We don’t have anyone doing consultation with Taser or being paid by Taser.”

OPD’S BODY CAMERA PURCHASE

After Mina and Cechowski’s presentation in May, commissioners gave OPD the go-ahead, directing them to apply for a matching grant from the Department of Justice to buy the cameras. When the USF study findings were announced, OPD had recently learned they beat out 200 other agencies for a portion of a Department of Justice matching grant for body cameras. The agency would receive a half-million dollars toward a purchase of body cameras.

In the meantime, Cechowski continued to do interviews and presentations about the department’s experience with the body cameras.

"We've had a really good response," he said on the WOFL morning show. "A really good experience. We've seen complaints go down, injuries go down."

Have a tip? FOX 13 Investigates wants to hear from you. Email us at investigates@wtvt.com. Contact the reporter directly at (813) 870-9758 or email tina.jensen@foxtv.com.

 

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