The relationship between mobile technologies and policing in the United States is not a new one. In-car computers and scanners, hand-held recording devices, radios and cameras have been deployed in the field for decades. The last decade has been characterized by a steady rise of networked information technologies and resources that have co-constituted new policisng practices, in particular “predictive” and “smart” policing.1 These trends and practices are, of course, embedded within pre-existing attitudes, cultures and practices. However the technical expertise and infrastructural demands of ‘big data policing’ have made the boundaries between law enforcement and the companies that service them more porous. The value of big data is derived from massive scale and a multitude of sources, depending on shifting attitudes and practices around privacy and a lack of technological literacy. Black-box technologies proliferate throughout the criminal legal system from law enforcement with big data policing2 to the legal process with risk assessment and sentencing algorithms3 and is in its infancy within correctional factilities. The mechanisms of black-box technologies remain inscrutable. This inscrutability is not a side effect, but a sellable feature, rendering the effects of these technologies outside of traditional mechanisms of oversight and refutation.4 Axon is not the first or only company in the law enforcement arena, but it is the company most focused on selling this complex suite of interconnected technologies as a platform and in so doing, reframing the contours of police work, records management and information exchange in law enforcement. The transition from a company focused on the development and deployment of ‘smart’ weapons technology to a platform was neither obvious nor inevitable for Axon (formerly TASER). The origin of Taser, mythologized through repeated interviews and statements by founder Rick Smith, locates the development of smart weapons as a personal, technological response to the epidemic of gun violence, a problem whose solutions Smith identifies as incommensurate with policy or political intervention. ‘I was a total outside observer at this point, but I knew politics and politicians weren’t going to fix this problem. It was going to have to be technology.’5 The now ubiquitous generic trademark TASER (Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle), originally culled from a favorite book of its original inventor Jack Cover, brings with it a cruel, ironic twist as the book itself charges through the early twentieth century’s worst racist, imperialist tropes, pitting a young white hunter against the ‘savagery’ of Africa.6 Since the company’s founding in 1993, the TASER brand has become interchangeable with the concept of the supposedly non-lethal weapon.7 2007 saw the word tase/taze become a runner-up for the New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year, attributing its rapid rise in popularity to a widely circulated video of a University of Florida student being stunned by university police.8 However broadly Smith’s original vision for the non-lethal weapon might seem, Axon’s market quickly coalesced around law enforcement, and although TASER products are still available as personal devices, law enforcement became the basis for their ever-expanding, sustainable revenue. The expansion of this revenue stream has been bolstered in recent years by an increase in interest around and funding for police body-worn cameras, devices that require exponentials increases in storage, processing, analytical tools, constant software updates, and benefit from cloud-based, networked support structure. In-house solutions for contending with the challenges posed by body-worn cameras infrastructural demands were unfeasible for many smaller law enforcement agencies, causing several departments to abandon early pilot programs.9 Although most stories told around big data policing tend to feature large urban police departments, of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies operating in the United States, just under 50% of those agencies employ fewer than 10 sworn officers.10 Axon’s platform, with familiar, social-media style aesthetics, streamlined processes and low barrier to entry, puts forth a highly technical solution without the requirement of transforming an agency or its officers into a highly technical environment. This platform model characterized by a series of interconnected applications and services is bolstered by a partnership with Microsoft Azure (as of 2017), a cloud computing service. This partnership provides mass amounts of networked storage, an extremely powerful capacity for search and aggregation, and “real-time” updating and retrieval.
In this article, I inquire into Axon’s attempts at ‘platform policing’ by situating it within the complex record-keeping and database environments that exist within law enforcement agencies. Utilizing a material-technical framework for understanding platforms within law enforcement, this work seeks to understand the ways in which policing practice, record-keeping, interface and technological infrastructure co-constitute current imaginaries around police work. This approach does not seek to disentangle the material-technical from the corporeal or the social, but to emphasize the ways in which technical standardization can routinize bodies, behaviors, and identities through design choices, programming, infrastructural demands and policy. First, I will briefly outline the way in which this work uses concepts of platform by situating it within current discussions of platform studies. Second, I will describe the database and records management environment into which platform policing emerges as a new player in the law enforcement industry. Third, through analyzing three current mobile applications offered through Axon, I argue that policing through platform: a) reflects and performs future imaginaries of police labor; b) makes the processes by which information is created, managed and analyzed increasingly opaque and thereby adds to its authority; c) removes the technical complexity required for “big data” policing from the responsibility of law enforcement; d) entrenches legacy data through aggregation and long-term storage; e) minimizes the importance of record creation and keeping within law enforcement; f) expands the secondary economy of policing through long-term contracts with private companies.
Platform, Platforms, Platforming
Work on platforms and platformization has been concentrated in three major areas: social media, video games and the rise of the “gig” economy. This article builds upon and extends this work through an interrogation of the contemporary and potential future consequences of policing through platform, recognizing that the conceptual slippage attendant in the term platform. The MIT Press Platform Studies book series was introduced in 2009 with Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s book Racing the Beam,11 which set forth the beginnings of an approach seeking to defines method and practice around the study of platforms. Specifically oriented around the relationship between the material and the technical that provide the basis for creative digital work, the book foregrounds video games as a new media site that had been ignored and stresses the vital importance of rigorous attention to computing and technical infrastructure. Firmly rooted in computational definitions of platform,12 the base on which software applications are run, this strain of platform studies exists along a continuum of software studies and media archaeology that has been subject to the critique that this work privileges the focus on technical specificity while ignoring the environment within which those technologies exist and the consequences they may have. Another strain of platform studies foregrounds the role of platforms on labor. The prevalence of social media platforms has led to a rise in what Sarah Roberts has dubbed commercial content moderation (CCM)13, a series of practices that relies on low-wage, often secret labor that scrubs platforms of violent or disturbing content. CCM allows for mass use of social media platforms by a variety of constituencies while also maintaining social media brands as safe, active community spaces. Outside of social media platforms, the entrenchment of the on-demand, gig-economy has benefited from a seemingly never-ending onslaught of new platform-based services characterized as convenient for consumers and as dynamic, innovative forces14 by the companies themselves but has contributed to further precarity for workers and seismic shifts in previously regulated and organized industries.15 Another strain of platform studies characterizes the rise of social media companies as a disruptive economic, political and social force. Much of this work is still focused on the technical infrastructure, emphasizing the effect of entanglement of previously discrete industries, information and economic flows. Although the use of the word platform to describe one aspect of internet infrastructure that allows for programmability precedes Facebook, the colloquial use of the word platform and its wholesale penetration into popular understandings of mobile technologies and social media is tied to the ubiquity of the social media giant. In particular Anne Helmond16 has argued that offering Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) represents a significant shift in the usage and understanding of “platform.” As APIs made Facebook programmable and created the expectation of compatibility across services, extending the reach of individual products, services and companies across different sources of data. The experience of the consumer also adjusts here, as one increasingly does not have to “leave” the service. The etymological work of Keating and Cambrosio in their book Biomedical Platforms also suggests that the rhetorical-political connotations of platform have become embedded within both the marketing language and logic of technology companies, depicting platforms as the technical embodiment of openness and adaptability.17 The role of social media platforms in the realm of political communication and the politics of platforms themselves have become an increasing focus for a new body of work. Informed by critical race theory, gender studies, legal studies and political science, this work zeroes in on the convergences between design, technological affordances and ideology.18 Research on the design of platforms such as Facebook and YouTube suggests that it is a feature of the platform to encourage further polarization.19 Recently, YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot has given insight into how YouTube’s algorithm prioritizes conspiracy theory content because it predictably leads to more watch time, more time on the platform.20
While Axon is by no means a social media company, its use of the term platform benefits from the ubiquity of the term platform that has arisen through normalized social media use. While social media companies no doubt at times use the term as descriptive of specific technical affordances, to the general public, a platform has less a technical connotation than an affective one, describing an easy to use environment. Axon’s platform is not programmable by law enforcement agencies. Although there are customizable options, the platform remains closed, yet its appeals to platformness relies on a popular understanding of interconnected, easy to use services. This appeal is, as Tarleton Gillespie21 has pointed out, a kind of staging for multiple constituencies, remaining both vague and referential enough to claim likeness with a range of service. The platform is both familiar enough to be perceived as easy to use and inscrutable enough to require constant external technical support. In a critical analysis of the distributed etymological roots of the term ‘platform,’ Gillespie explicates the discursive generativity of associations with the political, the computational, the architectural and the figurative. In addition, Axon expands the rhetorical register of platform by mobilizing the use of the term as a means of aligning with the ‘ethos’ and aesthetics of Silicon Valley, simultaneously distinguishing itself from other companies focused on law enforcement and strategically appealing to an assumed relationship between emergent technology and social change, as Axon’s corporate identity in some part relies on their positioning as reformers armed with technical solutions.
The Platform Readiness of Law Enforcement Data
The contemporary era of big-data policing22 has emerged as a result of rapid increase in the capacity for processing, storing, querying, capturing, transferring, visualizing, analyzing, searching voluminous amounts of data from a variety of sources. As data has increased in value for law enforcement, so too has the potential commercial viability of law enforcement to outside companies. Most of the aforementioned activities take place through partnerships with private corporations, as the infrastructural demands, expertise and capacity for law enforcement agencies to reckon with large-scale data problems is limited. Additionally, partnerships between law enforcement and private corporations allows for the circumvention of traditional means of information gathering. While this is not comprehensive, we can also get a sense of the volume of requests by law enforcement for consumer data by reading Google’s 2017 transparency report, which reports 27,000 data requests for the previous year.23 While neither large-scale data collection nor information flow between private companies and law enforcement are new, the contemporary era has seen significant efforts to aggregate and analyze across a number of data repositories and/or databases which were developed in isolation. Private companies are attempting to centralize previously decentralized practices within law enforcement. The flow of data is multi-directional, as the value of aggregate data both produced by law enforcement and funneled to law enforcement continues to expand.
Bolstered by a post 9/11 sea change in federal policy concerning inter-agency information sharing, large-scale efforts to de-silo law enforcement databases have attracted investment and attention.24 National efforts such as the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Service hosted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) collate a series of databases and employ pattern recognition and analysis.25 These resources tend to coalesce around the security apparatus that is the United States border, reflecting the currents of politics and rhetorics of national security26 ; the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Service, has been deployed throughout such states as California, Arizona, Texas and Seattle. Legacy databases such as those maintained and supported through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) house collected DNA, but are increasingly augmented by commercial data sources such as GEDMatch, pushing boundaries around informed consent, privacy and surveillance further as a DNA sample does not only apply to the person who supplies it.27 Regulations regarding the retention and use of such publicly supplied information are not yet standardized.
Gang databases occupy a rarefied space in the world of law enforcement databases as they are considered internal intelligence databases. Gang databases rely on highly subjective judgments by law enforcement to attribute gang affiliation and enter a person into the database. Once in, it is next to impossible to remove oneself from the database and identification within it can have substantive long-term effects, at times seriously extending a prison sentence due to gang enhancement statutes, landing people on gang-injunction lists which limit their interpersonal associations and affecting both plea deal and trial outcomes.28 The accuracy and viability of these databases has been called into question as persistent errors, biases and unstructured policies have given way to abuse and overextension.29 Tattoo databases, used by both law enforcement agencies and corrections the purposes of identification as well as for gang association have become the raw material for projects between the FBI and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to attempt to aggregate the images of inmate and arrestee tattoos in order to automate their search and retrieval.30 Companies such as Face Forensics routinely work with law enforcement to do just that.31
Increasingly, the databases maintained by law enforcement are entangled in a range of mediating technologies that benefit from the localized nature of regulatory mechanisms regarding information gathering and management.32 Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR) combine high-speed camera technology with image-processing technology in order to identify vehicles by their license plates. Fixed cameras often mounted on streetlights capture images, and the segment of the photo containing the license plate is converted into machine-readable text which is then tagged with time, date and location data.33 Companies such as Vigilant and ELSAG operate the cameras, manage the databases, perform analytics and can operate around data retention policies or laws compelling transparency to which law enforcement may typically be subject.
Records Management and Reporting
Reporting formalizes, standardizes and formats information gathered and generated by law enforcement. Reporting is also a feature of law enforcement work often characterized as time consuming, redundant and frustrating and as the above quote implies, can be classified as something other than real police work. The value of information work is denigrated through its contrast with other forms of police work and this denigration has become a familiar marketing refrain from companies seeking to capitalize on the law enforcement records management market, a market responding to myriad issues in law enforcement record-keeping including a lack of interoperability, a multitude of data sources and systems and user error.
In a report generated by Police One, a website that provides news for and by law enforcement as well as product reviews for law enforcement, sponsored by Mark 43, a tech company that focuses on Records Management Systems (RMS) for law enforcement, analyzed the state of reporting in law enforcement. According to their survey, 73% of respondents said they were using some form of report writing software both in the station and in the field. The survey also claimed that the majority of officers spend between 15–45 minutes writing reports that they later can only claim they sometimes trust in terms of accuracy.34 The records management environment within law enforcement is a product of calcified legacy systems meant for specific purposes. These systems can rarely interact with all of the databases described above or with each other. For example, within the records management market, a handful of companies dominate including: Tyler Technologies which offers New World Records Management; Spillman Technologies which offers both Flex Integrated Records Management in partnership with Motorola as well as an Off-the-Shelf- Records Management product; and Integrated RIMS system by Sun Ridge Systems. Additionally, companies such as Mark 43, Nexgen, Mercury and TriTech Software Systems offer RMS for Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD), emergency services.35 These products can be distinct from report writing software and evidence management, leaving it up to the companies themselves to create products that function across these systems.
As of writing, Axon does not currently offer RMS, although they are currently recruiting law enforcement agency partners in their design phase.36 Their “vision” for RMS provides a look into their idealized version of an end-to-end service model integrating all available Axon products used in the field through to eventual prosecution. A marketing video, showing a simple citizen-law enforcement interaction regarding a stolen vehicle, shows a young, white, female officer wearing an Axon Flex 2 body camera. As the officer greets the woman whose care is stolen, a voice recognition system automatically records and transcribes their speech. This automated transcription automatically populates an incident report. The officer’s Axon Flex camera also automatically reads the citizens Driver’s License, populating her information into the report. As the officer walks away, the report is generated, completed and sent along to the appropriate detectives. Next, we see both the Sergeant and Records Manager in the office reviewing the report and video, redacting faces and forwarding to patrol officers who, through their use of license plate readers, quickly identify the stolen car and close37 In this vision, the officer is rendered responsive only to the technological affordances enabled by Axon’s RMS, as each step in the process is automated. Additionally, the opacity of exactly how each step of this process takes place lends authority to its outcome, supposedly removing the intervention of the officer through structured reporting and automation. Even as those working in artificial intelligence and machine learning can within their professional circles admit the limitations of their current offerings, the company has to create the pretense of a seamless, perfectly functioning system. In the video, the officer also assures the citizen that the video will not be distributed publicly, but as has become fairly routine practice, law enforcement agencies release partial body-worn camera videos as attempts to refute unfavorable narratives or to showcase officers acting within policy. These records and the videos contained within them provide insight into the performativity of police records, privileging not only point of view of an individual police officer through the video’s perspective but also through the careful regulation of access.
RMS solutions are sold as tools for streamlining labor that distracts from what is positioned as the “real” work of policing. While the traditional infrastructure for law enforcement report writing, record-keeping and evidence management relied on highly idiosyncratic protocols and practices that while scattered, could be scrutinized on an individual basis, automated RMS and evidence management makes this labor and the logics behind it far less visible. In many ways, the RMS platform solves a very real problem precipitated by a complex information environment, and yet through automation the agency of records-management is displaced from law enforcement officers, challenging and even flattening structures of accountability.
The Axon Platform
Axon’s understanding of the term platform, is both a direct outgrowth of and drastic oversimplification of the term’s dominant usage within Silicon Valley. The term platform emerged out of Silicon Valley as a descriptive term referring both to technical architecture and an attendant business model, one that relied on a company building the core components of a system that allowed other parties to build products that operated atop the core system,38 both enabling and benefitting from the free labor of users, other developers and companies. A salient feature of the platform is its programmability39, its business model is predicated on active interaction between systems. Axon’s founder Rick Smith has fully absorbed Silicon Valley rhetoric about innovation, sci-fi inspired techno-utopianism and Elon Musk’s 10X thinking40, and in the transition from small company focused on non-lethal weapons to a platform-based company, has oriented product development and design as much around commercially available social media products as around genuine problems related to law enforcement. Axon’s platform does indeed capitalize on the ability to integrate and aggregate disparate information and data sources but does not encourage external developers to create new products on top of its core system. In contrast to programmability, Axon cites the primary feature of platformness as their own network’s connectivity. Specifically, the platform connects Axon’s body-worn cameras, in-car cameras, TASER conducted electrical weapons (CEWs), their signal side-arm technology (a smart sensor that activates body-worn or in-car cameras when an officer draws their weapon), their records-management system, artificial intelligence capabilities and their digital evidence management system (Evidence.com).41 This vision of a totalizing ecosystem of connected devices imagines a particular vision of policing that presumes a disproportionate level of control over the labor of policing through interface and algorithm design. Some of this power is an outgrowth of the platforms shaping of roles within the organization, the process of record-creation and forms of evidence. In their media press kit, Axon cites a series of benefits of using their platform including: a reduction in the number of false complaints (against the police); decreased use of force; improved behavior of suspects and the quality of evidence gathered; enhanced public trust; the creation of safer communities at a lower cost; decreased litigation; increased cost savings for each agency; increase in the number of expedited please and associated cost savings as a result of Axon camera usage; technology infrastructure savings as a result of Evidence.com; secure storage and tracking of digital evidence; turning geospatial multi-media evidence into visual dashboards; tactical maps.42
Axon’s carefully maintained brand identity depends on positioning its platform as not simply a suite of tools in support of police but also an advocate for policing. Promising that the job of law enforcement can be optimized through a reduction in tedious tasks, the preservation of law enforcement’s reputation and lowering costs. Their platform as a mechanism of behavioral control pointed outwards, never inwards, strategically sandwiching reduction of force between a claim of reducing false complaints and improving suspect behavior, locating the both the phenomenon of and response to law enforcement use-of-force outside of law enforcement responsibility. Axon consistently draws a boundary around what kinds of labor are valid and worthy of law enforcement, asserting that their tools enable officers to focus on the important aspects of their work rather than on the mundane, time consuming tasks associated with record-keeping, evidence management and reporting. The creation and maintenance of records however, is central not only to police work but also to the impact of policing on those policed. Official reports represent a version of events considered acceptable within the law, often flattening the affective, and often violent encounter into programmatic and sanitized terms. One’s “record,” in both a colloquial and logistical sense, follows one around forever with very few exceptions. Even in cases in which criminal records are expunged, the spread of information makes the functional disappearance of the record little more than a fantasy.43 This record, once constructed through discrete systems of inscription and translation is now networked and imbued with the potential for aggregation across myriad databases that create intransigent depictions of the subject even as they tout their potential for flexibility through technical infrastructure. The Axon platform acts as a tool to free up officers to do the important work of policing. Again, it is unclear exactly what that important work is but it is clear that it is a) not writing reports and b) happens on the street. Rather than a tool of policing, Axon’s platform is a tool that allows the police to do the real work of policing.
Axon’s platform is ever-growing and expansive, however there are three Axon apps in particular that illuminate the ways in which Axon’s platform performs Axon’s understanding of platform in addition to producing future imaginaries of policing, undermining the expertise of information work and infrastructurally binding Axon’s technical features with future policing practices. Axon Citizen, Axon View and Axon Capture each work in their own way to extend Axon physically, geographically, bureaucratically and infrastructurally into all aspects of law enforcement, keeping everyone ‘on’ the platform. For Axon, platforming is a process of enclosure, of absorbing more and more behaviors and practices into their ecosystem while creating system dependencies. Axon is not building APIs in order to extend their reach into other commercial spaces, but rather they are creating proprietary imitations of pre-existing products and corralling them into their suite of products. Additionally, this keeps the value derived from mass data gathering internal to Axon and law enforcement agencies, further deepening dependencies on Axon as law enforcement agencies cede more short and long-term information management to the company.
Axon Citizen allows a law enforcement officer to generate an individual link to send directly to a witness on the scene or the police department can generate al ink open to the community advertised by both social media and/or traditional media outlets such as television. These ‘public evidence submission portals’ allow multiple parties to upload images with accompanying metadata to send to law enforcement. Touting ‘Evidence from the community. In three clicks.’, Axon Citizen associates direct cooperation with the police as an integral element of citizenship. Directly counter to the growing number of both organized and spontaneous citizen documentation practices that seek to offer a counter-narrative to the police, the naming of Axon Citizen places such efforts as outside juridical evidentiary frameworks. Documentation becomes an aspect of good citizenship as it cooperates with the goals of law enforcement. A promotional video for Axon Citizen set to dramatic, angular guitars depicts two scenarios. Both scenarios involve the same disgruntled employee. Barry has just been fired and in a fit of rage, destroys company property as his colleagues watch and capture video via their cellphones. In order to help the company press charges, footage is uploaded via Axon Citizen for the investigating officer, who has conveniently created and sent a link via text message to a cooperating employee’s phone. After Barry leaves the office, he decides to let off steam by getting into a “brawl” at a concert. After this incident, the police solicit footage via the local news for anyone attending to concert to send along their evidentiary footage through a link generated through Axon Citizen. This app transforms the decades old concept of “community policing” into an app. The rhetoric of community policing promises an improvement in police – community relationships through deploying officers consistently within the same geographic location. The assumption being that officers will get to know the people they are policing and this will automatically lead to mutual respect. Critiqued as mere rhetoric that eschews systemic and structural problems of racism and violence, community policing as a term is so large and diffuse that it has lost any specific strategic significance. However, Axon Citizen calls back to the promise of community policing, but through its affordances and familiarity, removes the gravity of information exchange with law enforcement and simultaneously redistributes surveillance and intelligence responsibilities to the public. The features of the app promise easy, familiar interaction utilizing the intimate space of the smart phone. Axon Citizen also seeks to technically enclose the creation and circulation of citizen generated video footage. Rather than building an API to function alongside or within pre-existing ubiquitous tools such as YouTube, Axon and law enforcement bring the footage wholly under their control. The rise of citizen documentation of police violence has also been accompanied by strategic communications practices, internal law enforcement strategies to recuperate public perception by engaging in social media. Trainings on managing social media during a crisis, on community image improvement and other forms of communications can be found in many state-wide or national law enforcement professional gatherings.44
Axon View provides both instant replay and live video streaming capability, enabling officers to see what is being captured by their body-worn cameras. This product is touted as having the potential to “prevent dispute over recorded events” through its instant replay feature. Policies regarding body-worn camera footage are ad hoc and highly idiosyncratic.45 Some law enforcement agencies must comply with larger public records law requirements specified by the state and some create fully in-house policies. Some contend with some form of formalized public oversight and some do not. However, this technical intervention to the normative practice of body-worn camera footage leaving the hands, or more appropriately eyes of an officer before they have time to write up an official report, acknowledges the prioritization of law enforcement’s narrative of events. Rather than positioning the body-worn camera as an object outside of the event, Axon View acts as a sensory extension of the officer themselves. Additionally, the instant replay feature of the app heightens and furthers that privileged point of view, through the immediacy of deployment. Giving a citizen relatively few options to dispute the actions of an officer or to defend their own actions as they are confronted with what the officer is telling them is indisputable visual evidence of the event. The appeal to the video’s indisputability renders its interpretability impossible. Axon View delivers on Axon’s promise of mobilizing documentation as a means of minimizing the labor of policing, if one is able to circumscribe a citizen’s understanding of the event they were witness to or victim to or participant in, the lifespan of conflict becomes much shorter.
Axon Capture is a mobile application, specifically designed for law enforcement and meant for enabling the capture of digital evidence in the field. Allowing a law enforcement officer to upload photo, video and audio through the app. All evidence is autotagged with GPS locations and metadata can be added on the scene. Citing a case study conducted with the Redmond Police Department, Axon touts the time and money saving potential of integrated evidence capture through Axon Capture and evidence.com. Bolstered by cloud storage, the app sidesteps the previous practice of uploading and storing digital evidence on site at the precinct at the end of each shift. A short promotional video for Axon Capture.
Replaces ‘all of this’with a single device. As an aspect of this enclosure process that characterizes Axon’s platform, Axon Capture eliminates the distinctions between evidence and evidence management, making the evidence gathered itself an entity entirely mediated by Axon, The evidence is made with Axon products, stored and analyzed with Axon tools and sent to prosecutors using Axon’s proprietary system.
Crucially, Axon claims that each of these apps replaces a set of previously distinct and tedious aspects of law enforcement labor. They promise a seamless process that delivers the truth. The implication here is not just about the mundanity of much of police labor, but also about the means by which the truth of an event or incident is agreed upon. The record produced by these apps stands as the truth precisely because its mechanisms are invisible to the citizen (and to an extent, the law enforcement officer as well). These apps seemingly erase the contingency, the context of the environment, claiming indisputability through mechanical means, making the mechanics required to make the apps work indispensable to a future vision of law enforcement. If the truth is only available through mechanical means, then how would one police without them? Contributing to an already radical vision of future police work in which intelligence and information are automated, readily available, reliable and truthful at all times the app also packages these assumptions in commercially available, “friendly” ways to both citizens and law enforcement officers. Mimicking the user interface and informational flow of social media platforms, these apps give the impression that police work is another form of content creation.
The means through which Axon’s platforms have the potential to exercise control over the nature of law enforcement labor remains to be seen. It is clear however, that the control over labor is not an attempt to increase oversight or accountability as much of the early rhetoric suggested. The rise and expansion of data-driven policing and its attendant technologies have provided the potential for gathering just as much, if not more, information about the way policing is done. However, the flow of information is not reflective and has done more to transform once distinct aspects of police work into a continuous, automated process. Axon’s products promise easier workflow, a solution to tedium and, of course, cost savings. Law enforcement information generated then, is not conceived of as a public resource leading to broader oversight. In fact, through Axon’s platforms, even more aspects of police labor are hidden. In the world of platform policing, opacity is a feature not an accident. A lack of understanding about what exactly goes into the functioning of the platform allows for the performance of process, precluding intervention, questioning or dispute. The record claims further authority through this process of automation, even as the sources of data are no less problematic or even more accurate.
A key aspect of the ways in which Axon produces imaginaries around the future of policing is a lack of engagement with the people most affected by and most frequently in contact with the police. Platform policing centers law enforcement as the client, the success and viability of its corporate creators relies not only on the continued existence of law enforcement in its current form but it in its growth, expansion and through the proliferation of partnerships. Axon’s platforms requires massive stores of data to function, and even more to get better. So far, technologies of automation and aggregation privilege larger, urban environments, as they can supply the volume of training data required for machine learning. Embedded in this process is the assumption that data is portable across communities, the consequences of which could be dire. The Axon platform is embedded within pre-existing law enforcement practices and structures governing data, records management and evidence management. Additionally, Axon.
is also vitally connected to other aspects of the platform economy. While citizen documentation, captured via cellphone is routinely uploaded onto YouTube and spread through social media, these “viral encounters with violent death on the Internet”46 are increasingly countered with selectively released “official” documentation captured through police body-worn cameras. The aesthetics of these videos have become routine, the Axon logo, serial number of the camera, time and date in the upper right-hand corner, a fish-eye effect from the lens on the body camera, the blur or pixelation of redacted faces and sometimes nausea inducing movement of bodies. Law enforcement in this sense, become content creators, capitalizing on the norms and expectations of social media platforms even as they generate profit for commercial platforms.
Axon Citizen, Axon Capture and Axon View contribute to new practices and new understandings of law enforcement labor. Axon consistently characterizes record-keeping, report writing and evidence management as mundane and tedious and even go so far as to claim that these activities do not qualify as real police work. Minimizing the importance of these actions undermines the importance and impact of police information work. Platforming these processes makes them opaque, lending them authority and making them more difficult to question or combat. Even though sources of law enforcement data are incredibly messy, report-writing is complex and evidence management requires extreme care, hiding the technical complexity through Axon’s platform makes these processes seem easier and less prone to mistake and mis-representation. Perhaps most profoundly, these platforms would be incredibly difficult to detach from as they require the transformation of labor and long-term commitments, inextricably tying future policing practices to the commercial viability of Axon and making Axon’s success inextricably tied to the expansion of policing.
Axon’s growth is tied to their transition from a company that makes non-lethal weapons to a company that leverages value from connecting weapons, media technologies, apps, analytics, and storage solutions. The way into the law enforcement market addresses an infrastructural challenge presented by networked technologies, massive data storage requirements and expertise for dealing with such volumes of data. Unifying these often disparate practices and technologies under the conceptual heading of platform is more than a sales tactic to simplify offerings, but it is also a process of enclosure, involving more and more discrete policing practices. Counter to other platform models such as Facebook that relies on an entwining with symbiotic businesses and extracts value through a blend of their proprietary services and third-party app developers, Axon’s platform seeks to close out other services. One of Facebook’s market-effects is its inescapability, whether you are a user, former-user or have never interacted with Facebook directly, there is a strong chance Facebook has extracted value from your data. Axon is only really interested in one subset of customers, but in making it infrastructurally implausible to stop using their services. Evidence, reports, records, data and other forms of documentation contained in Axon’s expansive platform already have difficult and complex processes associated with public access, with long-term storage, with required reporting. Axon seeks to further privatize the publicly funded information work done by law enforcement, formulating the solution to every problem in policing as one that can be solved by a technical addition to an ever-expanding platform. Nieborg and Helmond47 offer a crucial analytic here, in encouraging analysis of platforms as data infrastructures. Axon has in many ways, stepped into an infrastructural void within law enforcement, as more and more agencies consider increasingly complex technical apparatus a necessary feature of law enforcement, infrastructural demands are too intensive. Each app in Axon’s platform as it becomes integrated into labor practices in addition to the infrastructural and analytical support, contributes to a concentration of power around Axon making the business of Axon and the business of law enforcement inextricable and requiring stronger and more immediate means of oversight and intervention.
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Stacy Wood is an Assistant Professor in the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work explores the histories, practices and cultures of evidence through record-keeping and archival systems.
- Brayne, Sarah. “Big data surveillance: The case of policing.” American Sociological Review82, no. 5 (2017): 977–1008. Ferguson, Andrew Guthrie. The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement. NYU Press, 2017. ↩
- Christin, Agnèle, Alex Rosenblat, and danah boyd. “Courts and predictive algorithms.” Data & CivilRight (2015). Pasquale, Frank. The black box society: The secret algorithms that control money and information. Harvard University Press, 2015. ↩
- Slobogin, Christopher. “Principles of Risk Assessment: Sentencing and Policing.” Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 15 (2017): 583. ↩
- Lightbourne, John. “Damned Lies & Criminal Sentencing Using Evidence-Based Tools.” Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 15 (2017): 327. ↩
- Schawbel, Dan. “TASER Founder Rick Smith: The Ability to Learn is More Important Than Experience.” Forbes. March 19, 2016. ↩
- Lartey, Jamiles. “Where did the word ‘TASER’ come from? A Century-old racist science fiction novel.” The Guardian. November 30, 2015. ↩
- According to autopsy reports collected by Reuters, there are an estimated 153 deaths in which Tasers were ruled to be a cause or contributing factor in the death. Eisler, Peter with Jason Szep, Tim Reid and Grant Smith. “Shock Tactics.” Reuters Investigates. August 22, 2017. ↩
- New Oxford American Dictionary Blog. November 12, 2007. https://blog.oup.com/2007/11/locavore/ ↩
- Wood, Stacy E. “Police body cameras and professional responsibility: Public records and private evidence.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture 46, no. 1 (2017): 41–51. ↩
- U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. National Sources of Law Enforcement Employment Data. Revised October 4, 2016. ↩
- Montfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009a). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge: MIT Press. Montfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009b). Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers. Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/01r0k9br. ↩
- Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘platform,’ accessed https://www.oed.com ↩
- Roberts, Sarah T. “Commercial content moderation: Digital laborers’ dirty work. The intersectional internet: Race, sex, class and culture online: 147–160.” (2016). ↩
- Chen, M. Keith, and Michael Sheldon. “Dynamic Pricing in a Labor Market: Surge Pricing and Flexible Work on the Uber Platform.” In EC, p. 455. 2016. ↩
- van Doorn, Niels. “Platform labor: on the gendered and racialized exploitation of low-income service work in the ‘on demand’ economy.” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 6 (2017): 898–914. ↩
- Helmond, Anne. “The platformization of the web: Making web data platform ready.” Social Media+ Society 1, no. 2 (2015). ↩
- Keating, Peter, and Alberto Cambrosio. Biomedical platforms: realigning the normal and the pathological in late-twentieth-century medicine. MIT Press, 2003. ↩
- For more on this see: Brock, André. “From the blackhand side: Twitter as a cultural conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56, no. 4 (2012): 529–549. Matamoros-Fernandez, Ariadna. “Platformed racism: The mediation and circulation of an Australian race-based controversy on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.” Information, Communication & Society20, no. 6 (2017): 930–946. Noble, Safiya Umoja, and Brendesha M. Tynes. The intersectional internet: Race, sex, class, and culture online. Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2016. ↩
- Bessi, Alessandro, Fabiana Zollo, Michela Del Vicario, Michelangelo Puliga, Antonio Scala, Guido Caldarelli, Brian Uzzi, and Walter Quattrociocchi. “Users polarization on Facebook and Youtube.” PloS one 11, no. 8 (2016). Colleoni, Elanor, Alessandro Rozza, and Adam Arvidsson. “Echo chamber or public sphere? Predicting political orientation and political homophily in Twitter using big data.” Journal of Communication 64, no. 2 (2014): 317–332. ↩
- Lewis, Paul. “ ‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: How YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth.” The Guardian, February 2, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/02/how-youtubes-algorithm-distorts-truth ↩
- Gillespie, Tarleton. “The politics of ‘platforms’.” New media & society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347–364. ↩
- Logan, Wayne A., and Andrew Guthrie Ferguson. “Policing criminal justice data.” Minn. L. Rev. 101 (2016): 541. ↩
- https://transparencyreport.google.com/. ↩
- Gil-Garcia, J. Ramon, Soon Chun, and Marijn Janssen. “Government information sharing and integration: Combining the social and the technical.” Information Polity 14, no. 1, 2 (2009): 1–10. ↩
- https://www.ice.gov/le-information-sharing. ↩
- Mattern, Shannon. “All Eyes on the Border.” Places Journal (2018). ↩
- Selk, Avi. “The ingenious and ‘dystopian’ DNA technique police used to hunt the ‘Golden State Killer’ suspect. The Washington Post. April 28, 2018. ↩
- Wright, Joshua D. “The constitutional failure of gang databases.” Stan. JCR & CL 2 (2005): 115. ↩
- Dumke, Mike. “Chicago’s gang database isn’t just about gangs”. ProPublica. April 20, 2018. https://www.propublica.org/article/chicago-gang-database-is-not-just-about-gangs. ↩
- Lee, Jungeun, Anil Jain, and Wei Tong. “Image retrieval in forensics: tattoo image database application.” IEEE MultiMedia 19, no. 1 (2012): 40–49. ↩
- http://www.faceforensics.com/SATattoo.aspx. ↩
- Wood, Stacy E. “Police body cameras and professional responsibility: Public records and private evidence.”Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture 46, no. 1 (2017): 41–51. ↩
- American Civil Liberties Union. “You are being tracked: How license plate readers are being used to track Americans’ Movements (2013), https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/071613-aclu-alprreport-opt-v05.pdf (“ACLU”) at 4–6. ↩
- PoliceOne. “How do officers feel about their RMS software?” May 11, 2018. ↩
- https://www.policeone.com/police-products/police-technology/software/rms/. ↩
- https://www.axon.com/info/records-management. Last accessed 3/24/2019. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Plantin, Jean-Christophe, Carl Lagoze, Paul N. Edwards, and Christian Sandvig. “Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook.” New Media & Society 20, no. 1 (2018): 293–310. ↩
- Montfort, Nick, and Ian Bogost. Racing the beam: The Atari video computer system. Mit Press, 2009. ↩
- Smith, Rick. Axon Accelerate 2018 Keynote. https://vimeo.com/276076200. ↩
- Axon media press kit. Accessed September 12, 2018. https://axon.cdn.prismic.io/axon%2F25c6fdcd-dc8a-471d-962d-ba2ef73167ab_2018+axon+press+kit.pdf ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Roberts, Jenny. “Expunging America’s rap sheet in the information age.” 2015 Wis. L. Rev. 321 (2015). ↩
- Bullock, Karen. “(Re) presenting ‘order’online: the construction of police presentational strategies on social media.” Policing and society 28, no. 3 (2018): 345–359. ↩
- Newell, Bryce Clayton. “Collateral visibility: A Socio-Legal Study of Police Body-Camera Adoption, Privacy, and Public Disclosure in Washington State.” Ind. LJ 92 (2016): 1329. Wood, Stacy E. “Police body cameras and professional responsibility: Public records and private evidence.” Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture 46, no. 1 (2017): 41–51. ↩
- Sutherland, T. (2017). Making a Killing: On Race, Ritual, and (Re)Membering in Digital Culture. Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, 46(1), pp. 32–40. Retrieved 28 Sep. 2018, from https://doi.org/10.1515/pdtc-2017-0025. ↩
- Nieborg, David B., and Anne Helmond. “The political economy of Facebook’s platformization in the mobile ecosystem: Facebook Messenger as a platform instance.” Media, Culture & Society 41, no. 2 (2019): 196–218. ↩