Taser International was disqualified from the city of Phoenix bid process to supply body-worn cameras last year after inappropriate efforts to contact police officials, public documents show.
But Scottsdale-based Taser still isn’t out of the running for a police body-camera contract.
Four months after VieVu, the city staff’s recommended bid winner, was announced on Sept. 20, Police Chief Jeri Williams said that new specifications would be written and the body-camera contract would be re-bid.
Taser’s actions have VieVu’s representatives seething.
“When they lose a public process fair and square, they whine like little children and resort to threats and temper tantrums,” said John Collins, a spokesman for VieVu, in an email. VieVu currently provides body cameras to Phoenix police in a pilot program, and was the city staff’s original recommendation for a five-year, $3.6 million contract.
Phoenix officials said that re-bidding the contract had nothing to do with Taser’s outreach; instead, they said, it gives a new police chief the opportunity to weigh in on a multimillion-dollar purchase.
Emails and letters received through an Arizona Republic public-records request detail the campaign by Taser representatives.
The documents show that Taser employees and representatives reached out to police executives in a way that Phoenix city officials say was outside the scope of proper procurement policy.
In awarding contracts valued above $50,000, Phoenix starts with a request for proposals, or RFP. After the application deadline, proposals undergo an extensive evaluation process, including testing by subject-matter experts, then the city staff recommends a winner. “Awards will be made to the highest-scoring offeror,” the body-camera bid solicitation reads.
Unsuccessful proposers may file a written protest — rules specify they must file this to procurement officials — no later than seven days after a recommended winner is posted on a city website. Procurement officials will issue a written decision on any appeal. After appeals are completed, city officials will request City Council authorization to award the contract.
According to records reviewed by The Republic, Taser tried to contact at least six top Phoenix officials after the city staff recommended that VieVu get the body-camera contract. The contacts began after VieVu won the bid in September and continued for months after city officials told the company two of those contacts disqualified it from bidding.
Taser attempted to reach Mayor Greg Stanton; Council members Sal DiCiccio and Jim Waring; current Chief Williams, former Phoenix Police Chief Joe Yahner and Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach, letters and emails show.
The City Council initially was set to vote Oct. 19 on whether to approve the contract with VieVu. That day, the vote was delayed until Nov. 9, then delayed again. Phoenix officials announced in January that they would instead be restarting the bidding process.
Days before the Jan. 18 announcement, documents show, Taser CEO and founder Rick Smith sent a pitch directly to Williams.
The letter does not explicitly mention the earlier bidding process but proposes a competitive counteroffer.
“The purpose of this letter is to offer you the opportunity to trial Axon Body cameras alongside your existing on-officer solution with all supporting software, storage and TRAINING for a full year at zero cost,” it read (emphasis is Taser’s). “The benefits to officer safety and community transparency have been so significant that we want to make sure that your agency is confident it has selected the solution that best fits its needs.”
Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle acknowledged the contacts with city officials and touted the quality of the company’s body cameras. The free offer was being made to all prospective law-enforcement clients, he said, to allow them to better evaluate the technology.
A city contracts specialist and the city attorney reprimanded Taser for its actions, the first disqualifying the company from the original bidding in October and the second criticizing the ethics of the free offer earlier this month.
David Urbinato, a city spokesman, said the next bid solicitation for the body-camera contract will have “material changes in scope and term.”
As a result, Taser could get a second chance to compete.
“As a new RFP, it would be open to any contractor that wishes to bid,” Urbinato said.
Tuttle said Taser does not comment on contracts on which the company might bid.
Diane E. Brown, executive director of consumer and taxpayer advocacy group Arizona PIRG, said it made sense that Williams would want to weigh in on specifications used to make a body-camera purchase. What doesn’t make sense, she said, is that a company reprimanded for bad behavior in the first bid process isn’t excluded from participating in the second.
“When a new government official comes into office, we understand and respect that they may wish to undergo a new process for an RFP,” she said. “However, if a company has been disqualified for violating an existing regulation, that company should not be able to enter into a potential contract for that same product.”
The market for police body cameras has exploded in recent years, as the demand for accountability has become a focal point in police and community relations. The devices are held up by police and civil-rights advocates alike as an impartial window into controversial encounters.
Taser International, a company known for its namesake stun guns, has been producing wearable video technology since 2008, and its Axon Body cameras now dominate the market, with 35 of the 68 major city police agencies using them, according to Taser.
In metro Phoenix, its client roster includes Mesa, Scottsdale, Chandler, Glendale, Peoria, Tempe and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
VieVu, based in Seattle, markets itself as an affordable, easy-to-use alternative. Phoenix’s current pilot-program cameras were issued by VieVu.
VieVu’s body-camera bid came in at $2.3 million less than Taser’s.
Letters and emails reviewed by The Republic detail Taser’s efforts to contact city officials about the contract.
The company’s disqualification came Oct. 5, after Yahner and Kurtenbach received voice messages from Taser representative Brian Black. According to a letter from the city, Black had reached out with questions after learning that VieVu had been named the bid winner on Sept. 20.
The voicemails violated city rules that require losing bidders to communicate only through the procurement officer, a city official wrote.
“Please be advised that Taser has violated the solicitation transparency clause and therefore is disqualified from further consideration of award,” Phoenix contracts specialist Claudia Ruiz wrote in a letter to Josh Isner at Taser International.
Tuttle said the representative was reaching out to Phoenix officials because Taser had been contacted by a reporter about the bid.
“As a longtime current vendor and partner of the Phoenix PD, we did not want to comment without first discussing with them, so our Taser weapons manager contacted the department for guidance on how we should answer,” Tuttle said in an email. “We were then informed that we were disqualified from that body camera procurement for not limiting communications to the designated point of contact.”
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Emails show some of the more aggressive solicitations came Oct. 18 and 19 — the latter being the day City Council members were to vote on officially awarding the contract to VieVu.
“I would like you to reconsider the City’s decision to move forward with a contract with VieVu for body cameras for the Phoenix Police,” Taser employee Dave Gollobit wrote to Councilman Jim Waring. “As a resident and taxpayer, I am appalled and find it tremendously disappointing.”
Gollobit later noted how the decision to contract with VieVu was affecting local jobs, “which is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
“This money spent is ultimately being reinvested in our community,” the letter said.
Taser Director of Quality Mark Kearney emailed Stanton to push for a “field trial” of Axon Body cameras against its competitors.
“I want PPD to only have the best as they continue to keep my family safe,” Kearney’s email said.
Urbinato said these contacts didn’t make a difference in the bidding process, since Taser already had been disqualified.
A spokesman for Stanton confirmed the email.
The mayor said he did, in fact, meet with the Taser CEO Smith Oct. 19 for coffee.
Stanton said Smith had texted him the night before, and he had an opening in the morning.
“The first thing he said was they were no longer participating because they had been disqualified, and it wasn’t about the current RFP,” Stanton told The Republic.
Stanton said the conversation largely centered on Smith presenting the Taser product as superior to its competitors.
Stanton said he did then speak to Williams and City Manager Ed Zuercher, but the conversation was about how he believed the new police chief should have a say in such an important decision.
“My issue was the timing,” Stanton said. “That was my concern; that we were making a major, major significant decision that would affect thousands of police officers, and I thought that it was critically important that Jeri Williams make this decision.”
Asked whether he believes Taser should have another chance after a disqualification, Stanton said it wasn’t an issue.
“I don’t particularly care who gets the contract,” he said. “I just want the best product for my police officers, and I trust my police chief to make that recommendation.”
Waring also confirmed that he met with Smith last year but couldn’t pinpoint the date, although he said he was sure it was before Williams was sworn in. Waring said he explained to Smith that he opposed buying cameras at this point because he thought funds would be better spent hiring more police officers.
Taser’s campaign stretched into January, after the vote on the body-camera contract for VieVu had twice been delayed.
Smith’s Jan. 12 pitch for free equipment and training was rejected in a strongly worded Feb. 6 letter from City Attorney Brad Holm, which was included in The Republic’s public-records request.
“Taser’s free-camera offer was intended to improperly influence the City to choose Taser’s equipment,” it read. “The City could not have accepted the offer unless it was willing to torpedo two properly conducted competitive solicitations.”
Holm said Taser’s offer violates the city’s procurement code and “creates the appearance of ethical impropriety.”
“Please refrain from submitting anything similar to the offer again,” Holm wrote in closing. “If Taser fails to comply with this directive, the City will consider debarment proceedings against the company.”
City spokesman Urbinato said a debarment prohibits a company from bidding for one to three years.
Asked about Smith’s letter to Williams, Tuttle said the company gave all major law-enforcement agencies the opportunity to use Taser’s products for free for a year to test alongside its competitors.
“In contrast to the outdated, bureaucratic processes, the best way to evaluate technology is to test solutions, with actual users, at scale,” Tuttle said in an email. “Many companies have purchased technology without first testing it, resulting in millions of dollars of lost investment and frustrated officers with unusable technology. When making major investments in technology, an informed buyer is in the public’s best interest.”
Taser’s business practices have come under scrutiny before. In 2005, The Republic reported that the company had paid then-Phoenix City Council member Dave Siebert to help sell the stun guns to another city. Siebert had voted to spend $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars on the company between 2001 and 2005.
The company also had paid hundreds of police officers to be instructors, spurring criticism of conflicts of interest.
Taser gave lucrative stock options to six police officers from 2001 to 2003, most of whom promoted Taser’s stun guns and, in some cases, urged their cities to buy them.
Court records in 2005 revealed that officers in Arizona, California, Washington, Texas, and Canada received thousands of company stock options, some only weeks after urging police commanders or city officials to purchase Tasers. Four of the six officers were later employed by Taser.
Sgt. Jonathan Howard, a Phoenix police spokesman, said Williams did not meet with a Taser lobbyist who had requested a meeting in October.
Early this year, between Taser’s letter to the chief and the city attorney’s response, Williams announced that she had directed the city’s project manager to rewrite the body-camera specifications.
“We are pursuing a new RFP,” she said on Jan. 18.
Williams said that she didn’t have the chance to provide input for the first bid, which was issued a year ago.
“However, in my role as the chief, I am expected to bring experience and perspective to decision-making processes that will have long-term impacts on our services,” she said.
Williams said enhanced technological features are offered in body cameras that were not previously available, and the old request for proposals did not call for these advancements.
In an interview with The Republic, Williams said her decision to restart the bidding process had nothing to do with Taser’s outreach.
Williams said she received the letter offering free services on Jan. 17 but had begun discussing her concerns about the current system as far back as October and November.
Williams said she found it “a little odd” that the incoming chief wouldn’t have a chance to weigh in on the specifications, and she decided she needed something different.
“My decision is based on a couple things,” she said. “I want to make sure we have different specifications in a body-worn camera system that’s going to minimize human error, that it is going to give an expanded field of view, and that’s going to be the best system to serve the officers and our community.”
The new request for bids has yet to be released.
Before rejoining the Phoenix police, Williams was chief in Oxnard, Calif., where the city approved a contract with Taser for body cameras in March 2016.
Phoenix isn’t the only battleground for VieVu and Taser.
An October article by Politico describes a similar dynamic in the bid for a New York Police Department body-camera contract. According to the article, the NYPD had just announced a tentative plan to work with VieVu for the program when a Taser lobbyist tried to intervene.
“A consultant working for Taser International reached out to at least one elected official and to religious leaders in an effort to cast doubt on VieVu’s performance, in advance of a mandatory October 13 contract hearing on the $6.4 million procurement,” the article stated.
Then, on Feb. 7, the New York Times wrote that the city’s Investigation Department was looking into the contract, leading the city’s comptroller to hold off on signing it.
Collins, the spokesman for VieVu, told The Republic that Phoenix officials should consider Taser’s actions in the new RFP process.
“The whole thing stinks,” he said. “The city should continue to disqualify them.”
Feb. 17: Request for proposals issued to outfit Phoenix police officers with body cameras.
March 25: Bids due.
Sept. 20:City selects VieVu as winner. Announcement starts seven-day window for losing bidders to protest.
Oct. 5: Phoenix disqualifies Taser after the company’s representatives called then-Phoenix Police Chief Joe Yahner and Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach. Per policy, Taser representatives are allowed only to speak with RFP officers about the bid.
Oct. 18, Oct. 19: Taser representatives send emails to Phoenix City Council members and Mayor Greg Stanton, just before the Council is set to vote on awarding contract to VieVu.
Oct. 19: Stanton meets with Taser CEO Rich Smith. City Council scheduled to vote on VieVu contract. Vote is delayed to Nov. 9.
Oct. 28: Jeri Williams is sworn in as new Phoenix police chief.
Nov. 9: Vote is again delayed.
Jan. 12: Taser CEO writes Williams letter offering free year of equipment and services, asking the city to compare its VieVu cameras with Taser’s, side by side.
Jan. 18: Williams announces she has directed the city’s project manager to rewrite body-camera specifications and that the city will be pursuing a new bidding process.
Feb. 6:City attorney Brad Holm sends letter that rejects Taser’s offer of the free body-worn cameras. Holm says the offer was “unethical” and “intended to improperly influence the City to choose Taser’s equipment.”
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