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Inside the Police-Industrial Complex

At the 2015 convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a view of the public-private partnerships that have come to shape modern policing—and to complicate questions of reform.
obama iacp 2015

President Barack Obama addresses the 2015 convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Chicago, October 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The great thing about trade shows, no matter the industry, is that you’re only ever a few steps away from a bowl of free candy. Bridal, automotive, tech, home and garden—whatever larger things are on offer, every conference runs on the complimentary sugar rush. And at this trade show, I needed it. The exposition hall at the 2015 convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, held over four days in late October, was a particularly overwhelming full-body experience.

The IACP conference is not only a professional development event; it also features a trade show with more than than 650 exhibitors. The vastness of the proceedings was not immediately evident—a maze of 10’x10’ inline booths, crowded together near the entryway, obscured everything that lay beyond. Threading my way along narrow aisles offset with striped carpet runners, popping a Hershey’s Kiss in my mouth here and there, I had to catch my breath when I cleared the black-curtained booths and finally saw the show floor. Chicago’s McCormick Place, where the conference was held, is the largest convention center in North America, and the exhibition floor covered over 450,000 square feet. Giant numbered signs hung from the ceiling, way-finders for an invisible grid that imposed order on a space roughly the size of four football fields and with room enough for a virtual fleet of cars, trucks, motorcycles, ambulances, and helicopters. (Yes, there were multiple helicopters.)

The candy kept me going, giving me something to do with my hands and mouth while my eyes took in tables full of handcuffs (in every color, including pink), guns (Glocks really do look like toys), and tactical gear. I accepted a stress ball from a suburban dad in a polo shirt and blazer who was there to sell jail-management software including an app named—perversely, it seemed to me—"Freedom."

This is the police-industrial complex, in which public-private relationships between law enforcement agencies and a wide range of for-profit corporations have come to shape our society’s very conceptions of policing—and our priorities for justice.

Turning a corner, I saw a logo I recognized: LexisNexis, the information database company whose products I use all the time. The line wrapped around the booth and led to a counter where representatives were mixing complimentary root beer floats—drizzling long pulls of vanilla ice cream from a rented soft-serve machine into branded plastic soda-fountain dishes bearing the tidy, sans-serif logo of the company’s new product, something called Coplogic.

“Oh,” I thought to myself, stepping into line for ice cream even as a queasy feeling roiled me. “Welcome to the police-industrial complex.”


Almost every social trend has a hyphenated “industrial complex” appended to it these days. President Dwight Eisenhower coined the term in a televised farewell address delivered on his last night in the White House in 1961. He warned that the United States' "immense military establishment" and the newly dominant American arms industry might, together, exert such immense economic and political pressure that the federal government would become the sole arbiter of the entire enterprise of scientific inquiry and industrial research—and that conflict would become incentivized.

Perhaps because of the term’s origins, commentators who refer to a “police-industrial complex” are usually describing the militarization of police agencies: the steady adoption, which escalated after September 11, 2001, of military technologies and strategies for domestic law enforcement purposes.

But in market terms, there is also a distinct police-industrial complex, in which public-private relationships between law enforcement agencies and a wide variety of for-profit corporations have come to shape our society’s very conceptions of policing and our priorities for justice.

At the IACP Exposition, the police-industrial complex takes its physical form. Though a significant majority of the vendors were representing industry-specific businesses or, in the case of Taser or Smith & Wesson, were businesses I fully expected to see, I realized when I stumbled onto the LexisNexis soda counter that there were also a lot of brands I recognized, and which carried no law-enforcement connotations for me. They included 3M, Brother USA, Canon, Champion Athletic Wear, Dell, Ford (which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me, but did anyway), Garmin, General Motors, Harley-Davidson, Hitachi Data Systems, iRobot (the makers of the Roomba), Leica Geosystems, Microsoft, Motorola, Oakley, Oracle, Panasonic, Samsung, SunGard, TransUnion, Xerox, BMW, Thomson-Reuters, and Timberland. (The Anti-Defamation League and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill were also represented, as was Airbnb.) Microsoft, Motorola, and Samsung were conference sponsors, alongside a handful of companies not represented on the exhibition floor, including Accenture, Big Four accounting firm Ernst & Young, AT&T, Cisco, and Target (which was not a headlining sponsor, but underwrites the organization’s Officer of the Year Award).

Like the other vendors, these well-known brands all paid between $22.75 and $26.50 per square foot of booth space to put themselves in front of a massive audience, one in which 75 percent of attendees hold purchasing power within their organizations. In addition, though conference events are restricted to higher-level law enforcement administrators, anyone working in public safety can attend the expo for free. In the police-industrial complex, companies best known for their civilian sector products make untold millions—in some cases billions—by catering to—or creating—the needs of law enforcement agencies.


Fortified by the root beer float (though unsure what to do with my dirty plastic cup), I fumbled with the conference app and tried to figure out where I wanted to go. I might have just spent the afternoon making aimless loops past the elaborate Taser display—they had hired an actor in a Star Wars Stormtrooper costume to pose with those waiting in line—but then I got a phone call from someone named Amanda, reminding me that I had an appointment across the room.

In the days before the conference, I was inundated with press releases and invitations to schedule interviews, all of them from body-camera manufacturers. This wasn’t a huge surprise. Whether outfitting police officers with body-worn cameras could reduce incidents of police brutality or, at the very least, provide authoritative information about police assaults on civilians in the aftermath of what we might call a “critical incident” has been a popular question over the last year and a half. Wondering if the emerging technology was adequate to the task, I had planned to sit down with as many different representatives as I could and find out more. (I also planned to mug for every floor-model camera I saw.) Dirty glass in hand, I set off for my first appointment.

But in speaking with three different vendors, I discovered something. Sussing out the technical details of each camera, tracking competing features, engaging in speculation about which was better—none of it, I realized, mattered very much. The people I talked to were uniformly kind, patient, and informative, but what I wanted to know—how the technologies their companies had developed might address the crisis of police brutality and the urgent need for greater law enforcement accountability—wasn’t really something they could tell me. And that’s not because they weren’t interested or didn’t care about those things. It's simply that their clients are not interested in these issues—or, at least, not in the same ways that you and I might be. I walked away not with an opinion on which body camera might be most effective, but with questions about whether any body camera produced within the morally compromised police-industrial complex could be.


Early research results do suggest that body cameras can make a difference. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, a year-long randomized controlled trial demonstrated that "officers wearing the cameras had 87.5 percent fewer incidents of use of force and 59 percent fewer complaints than officers not wearing the cameras.” But fewer complaints and use-of-force reductions are somewhat limited metrics: The public’s understanding of excessive force isn’t always in alignment with law enforcement conceptions, and logging fewer complaints doesn’t necessarily mean that the problems that might have prompted them have been resolved. Body cameras only work (or work best) for the clients the developers have in mind— the police, who don’t always want what the public wants. Law enforcement’s embrace of body-worn technology is at odds with that of a public demanding stiffer standards and penalties for police abuse.

Law enforcement agencies want to use body cameras and video recordings to protect officers, whether it’s by modifying their behavior or reducing complaints, or, when the need arises, to exonerate them. That this is a distinct aim is outlined very clearly in the way the Interim Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing describes body-worn cameras (BWCs):

An increasing number of law enforcement agencies are adopting BWC programs as a means to improve evidence collection, to strengthen officer performance and accountability, and to enhance agency transparency. By documenting encounters between police and the public, BWCs can also be used to investigate and resolve complaints about officer-involved incidents.

This is subtle, but important: "Investigating and resolving complaints" is not in the same category as "enhancing agency transparency." Nor does this description even imply that body cameras produce evidence sufficiently objective (if that’s even possible) not just to prosecute civilian crimes, but to adjudicate officer-involved complaints in that same legal system. At a basic level, the public and the police disagree on what might constitute police malfeasance. As activist and scholar Mariame Kaba recently noted, “The violence of policing is NOT mainly in the shootings & deaths but in the quotidian targeting, harassment, etc.”—all behaviors the camera might capture, but none of which necessarily incur censure within a police agency. “Excessive force,” it sometimes seems, is easiest to identify in retrospect: The treatment to which the police subjected Eric Garner up until the moment New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him into a chokehold might not have raised a single eyebrow if things had ended differently.

The source of the problem isn’t a matter of consensus, either. The 2014 Quantitative Criminology study summarizes a key finding this way: "When police officers are acutely aware that their behavior is being monitored ... and when officers tell civilians that the cameras are recording their behavior, everyone behaves better." Recent cases make clear, however, that "better behavior" is a vague standard, and there is no guarantee that it will shape officers' conduct in a particular way. Implying otherwise shifts no small part of the burden onto citizens; in the wake of her death, it was suggested that the dash-cam footage captured during the traffic stop demonstrated that Sandra Bland was responsible for escalating the confrontation with the arresting officer by doing things like refusing to put out her cigarette. The presence of the camera didn’t make Sandra Bland “behave better”—but it’s also clear that bad behavior is in the eye of the armed beholder. Ordering Bland out of her car, Texas State Trooper Brian T. Encinia brandished a Taser and screamed, “I’ll light you up,” his own behavior unchecked by the presence of a camera. If one of the solutions produced by body cameras, even inadvertently, is to shift greater responsibility to civilians for police use of force, it may satisfy the client, but it may not satisfy the public.

These are observations, not wholesale judgments. Police advocates for body cameras have different goals than concerned citizens do. The problem is that this technology, for good or ill, is developed and manufactured in the context of the extraordinary public-private partnerships between law enforcement agencies and independent businesses.

In other words, while the citizens of America are involved in an apparent referendum over the police-industrial complex, that complex continues to shape industry around itself—and around the political needs of its officers.


Whether this is a problem that has a solution is not entirely clear. Still dragging that dirty ice-cream goblet around, I left the expo floor wondering what it would mean for the public to be the client. What if body cameras were built and used according to the specifications of the Department of Justice? Maybe that would make a difference; maybe not. Even if a better product did result, there’s no guarantee that it would be uniformly adopted. Public concern, for example, has grown about the quality of the data that law enforcement agencies (voluntarily) submit to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about use of force incidents.

At the conference, FBI Director James Comey urged law-enforcement executives to consider moving their (still voluntary) data collection to the National Incident-Based Reporting System, a tool designed to capture more comprehensive and more granular data than the Uniform Crime Report does. But, limited by the federated independence of state- and local-level law enforcement agencies, urging is all Comey can do. There is no obvious way—no mandated way, no legally defended way—to ensure that the actors in the police-industrial complex represent the interests of the public. For better or for worse, “the public” isn’t always a meaningful force in a market society.

Months later, the LexisNexis cup, still covered in dried sugar scum, is somewhere in the pile of lifestyle rubble that floats around in the back of my car. The whole problem was that I felt too guilty to throw the thing away, even though carrying it around meant dripping ice cream/root beer sludge all over myself. Maybe no one had thought about that. Or maybe they had, and I just wasn’t the client whose problem they cared to solve.