A US manufacturer of tasers, body and car cameras, drones, and accompanying software that provides these products to US immigration authorities, prisons, and law enforcement agencies.
Axon Enterprise, formerly known as Taser International, is a U.S. company based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Most known for its less-than-lethal TASER brand of stun guns, the company has pivoted into the technology-driven mass surveillance industry. Its 2017 name change from Taser to Axon reflected a shift in the company’s focus from weapons to its cameras and artificial intelligence.
Aside from tasers, which the company still makes, Axon manufactures wearable cameras (“body-cams”), in-car camera systems equipped with Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) capabilities, and drone-mounted cameras, branded as Axon Air. The company’s software includes Axon Evidence (Evidence.com), which the company claims “is the world’s largest cloud-hosted public safety data repository of public safety video data and other types of digital evidence.” This system analyzes these data using artificial intelligence (AI) “to anticipate criminal activity” and “predict future events.”
Body cameras are often assumed to protect the public from police abuses, but Axon Evidence allows police to use its software to build cases against the public. In February 2021, Axon announced plans to integrate its Evidence.com platform with Cellebrite’s digital management platform. Cellebrite is a provider of mobile phone hacking tools. A Cellebrite representative explained that the Axon partnership will “empower investigations with one point of evidentiary management, delivering industry-leading tools that agencies can use to securely manage, analyze and review data, and build prosecution-ready single-case files.”
Axon primarily sells its equipment and services to U.S. police departments, prisons, immigration enforcement agencies, and private security firms. Its U.S. sales in 2020 accounted for 79% of its $618 million of revenue that year.
Outside the U.S., Axon clients include for example the Australian federal government, for which it provided evidence analytics and hosting. In 2021, the company provided military police in Sao Paulo, Brazil with the “largest body worn camera and digital evidence management project in Latin America.” In the same year, the company began implementing Axon Citizen in London, a controversial program for alleged crime victims to collect their own evidence and upload it to Axon Evidence.
US Immigration Enforcement
The two main U.S. immigration enforcement agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), routinely use Axon devices, both tasers and body cameras. The two agencies initially rejected arming their agents with tasers due to safety concerns, but later reversed their policy.
Within two years, during 2020-2021, ICE and CBP awarded the company 10 contracts worth more than $45 million for Axon products. From 2008 to 2021, the two agencies spent $61.6 million on tasers alone, some bought directly from Axon and others other dealers, such as Aardvark Tactical Inc.
In 2020, ICE awarded a contract to Axon to buy $17.9 million worth of tasers for its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division, which is responsible for most of the agency’s arrests and deportations. The model ICE purchased is the multi-cartridge Axon Model X2, which replaced the 1,200 Model X26P devices that ICE used before. The contract specifies that Axon also offers connectivity to Evidence.com, Axon’s cloud-based AI-driven evidence management platform.
CBP stated it needs tasers to control people who do not respond to “pain compliance”. Tasers are capable of delivering an “electric current that affects not only the sensory nerves… but also the motor nerves [which] when hyper-stimulated, stop a person’s actions immediately and incapacitate the subject for the duration of the exposure.”
Both ICE and CBP have a long history of misusing tasers against immigrants. CBP allowed its Border Patrol agents to use tasers in 2010, hoping to reduce the number of casualties from its operations. However, after reviewing its taser usage from 2010 to 2013, the Los Angeles Times determined that Border Patrol fired tasers “at people who were running away, even though there was no struggle or clear indication that agents were in danger, according to use-of-force reports.” Several of these people were shocked when handcuffed, and three died.
In 2016, ICE officers were documented shocking people with tasers, after placing them in a full-body restraint device called the WRAP. ICE officials admitted to using “minimal force” after detainees refused to comply with the officers’ orders.
Other than taser guns, CBP also uses Axon’s body cameras. In 2020, CBP spent $20.5 million on body cameras from Axon. The company will equip 3,800 Border Patrol agents with Incident-Driven Video Recording System (IDVRS). Among other objectives for the IDVRS body camera system, CBP lists “supplementing evidence in criminal cases increasing the likelihood of obtaining successful prosecution for those who have violated the law.” In other words, CBP’s Axon body cameras will be used to strengthen the agency’s prosecution of immigrants. CBP is not required to obtain consent to record individuals.
The body cameras acquired by CBP will also connect to Axon’s Evidence cloud platform, which is used by local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and by foreign police agencies, such as in London, U.K. and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In 2017, Thomas Blank, a former Axon lobbyist, was quietly appointed to serve as Chief of Staff for ICE. From 2005 to 2008, Blank, alongside seven other lobbyists, received $880,000 from Axon Enterprise. In February 2021, Axon hired former ICE Director Ronald D. Vitiello (2018-19) to work as head of the company’s DHS program and strategy. He worked in the federal immigration system from 1985 to 2019, during which time he held top positions at both ICE and CBP.
From 2002 to June 2021, the company spent $4 million in lobbying expenses on issues related to “non-lethal” weapons and body cameras, cloud, homeland and border security, law enforcement, and encouraging the use of Axon technologies.
Axon’s board of directors has had close ties to local law enforcement agencies: two of its members served as high-ranking police officers at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Arizona and the Chicago Police Department.