Ethics reviews come amid ties between police chiefs, Taser

AP News
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Posted: Mar 06, 2015 4:12 PM
Ethics reviews come amid ties between police chiefs, Taser

Two big cities are reviewing their ethics policies after The Associated Press reported on how their police chiefs were closely linked to a company that won contracts to supply officers with body cameras.

Officials in Salt Lake City and Fort Worth, Texas, said their chiefs' relationships with Taser International didn't violate current policies, but that they highlight potential shortcomings. The Texas Police Chiefs Association also will look into such relationships, saying they likely violate its ethics code.

The reviews come after the AP reported Tuesday that Taser International was building financial ties to current and former police chiefs who promote the company's body cameras and video storage system. The company is paying for airfare and hotels for chiefs who travel to speak at technology summits and appear in company materials praising its products. Some chiefs have become Taser consultants after retiring.

"It's caused a lot of entities to rethink this," said Tom Cowan, chairman of the Texas chiefs association's ethics committee. "It's extremely important for us to have public confidence and respect, and to be transparent when dealing with public funds."

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker directed staff to review whether the rules on relationships with city vendors should be updated after facing questions about Chief Chris Burbank's speeches at Taser-sponsored events and online promotional video.

"He recognizes that in retrospect some of that participation maybe wasn't the best decision to make," Becker spokesman Art Raymond said of Burbank.

Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said the city is reviewing whether its code should be strengthened to address perception problems, including vendor-funded travel and product endorsements. He noted that many professional groups have stricter rules.

Records show that Fort Worth's then-police chief, Jeffrey Halstead, worked last year to complete a contract worth $2.7 million for 400 cameras and storage before a quarterly deadline, telling Taser "someone should give me a raise." Halstead later accepted Taser-funded trips to Boston, Miami and Phoenix. After retiring in January, he said he planned to become an "official consultant" before traveling to Australia and Abu Dhabi for Taser events.

Cowan said Halstead likely violated the Texas association's ethics code, which says chiefs and subordinates shouldn't endorse products or accept perks intended to influence or reward.

The decision by Memorial Villages, Texas, police chief J.D. Sanders to allow his newly hired assistant Ray Schultz to work on the side as a Taser consultant also "runs counter to the code," Cowan said. The ethics committee will discuss the matter April 1 and may issue guidance reminding members about the provisions, Cowan said.

Schultz is the former chief in Albuquerque, where the inspector general and internal auditor are reviewing a $1.95 million no-bid contract he backed for Taser body cameras in 2013 before stepping down. Their reports should be completed in April, the city said Thursday.

Sanders, whose city is surrounded by Houston, dismissed the Albuquerque questions as "old news" in an AP interview and said Schultz had done nothing wrong. He said Schultz would take vacation time when he travels overseas this month for Taser events.

"We're not going to keep him from that, and it's silly for anybody to even think we would," he said.

He said Taser was lucky to get someone as smart and experienced with body cameras as Schultz. "It's just like they get Peyton Manning to sell these energy drinks."

National groups, some of which have their own relationships with Taser, said they would leave ethics and purchasing questions to existing municipal regulations.

"It's just difficult to control appearances at times," said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which Taser gives $25,000 annually in exchange for recognition and access at meetings.

However, Donny Youngblood, president of the Major County Sheriffs' Association said he wouldn't accept vendor-funded travel, calling it "a slippery slope."

"You have to be careful you don't become a salesman," he said.