How an impromptu meeting between a body camera vendor and a Pittsburgh police official led to a $1.5 million deal

(Animation by Idil Gözde/PublicSource)

Commander Clarence “Ed” Trapp is a 25-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. A native of the Pittsburgh area’s northwest suburbs, he started in Zone 3 in 1993 working a beat along East Carson Street on the South Side. A respected cop, he became a sergeant in 2001. By 2007, he was a lieutenant. In that role, he helped to write policy for city police overseeing the G-20 Summit and its related protests in 2009.

It was in that role that Trapp — nearly by accident — came to lead Pittsburgh's Bureau of Police into the 21st century with one of the first and largest body camera programs in Pennsylvania. But as a self-described novice to a burgeoning body camera industry, Trapp took ample opportunities to learn more about body cameras from salespeople associated with Axon Enterprise, formerly known as Taser International, at all-expenses-paid events where Axon was the host, and even to take paid consulting work from the company.

More than 4,700 pages of printed emails between Trapp and Axon representatives — provided to PublicSource through a records request with the City of Pittsburgh — show that Trapp became increasingly close with Axon over the years, and eventually helped to close Pittsburgh’s $1.5 million body camera contract for the company. City leaders signed that contract without seeking bids from any of the dozens of companies nationwide competing with Axon to provide body cameras to cops by instead relying on a 2014 comparable contract from Arizona.

The closeness of Trapp's relationship with Axon raises questions about whether he helped to seek the best possible body camera deal for Pittsburgh's police.

Photo courtesy of Axon

In a statement, an Axon spokesman noted that Pittsburgh was already a customer when Trapp became involved and that any payments he received from the company had been cleared through three internal investigations at the City of Pittsburgh.

It all started in 2012 when Trapp was assigned to a role in Chief Nathan Harper’s suite of offices. As Trapp described it, he was walking past the chief’s office one day and the chief motioned for him to come in. There were two salespeople from Taser International’s Axon body camera division sitting there.

They weren’t there on a cold call; Harper had invited them to be there.

As Trapp explained it, Harper had been at a policing conference some weeks prior in search of a dashcam that would embed onto motorcycles. When Harper approached the Axon sales booth, he was shown a body camera that could be affixed to an officer’s sunglasses. He thought that might do the trick. He wanted Trapp to roll them out for the department.

Trapp himself was surprised that he was the one to get the assignment.

“I knew nothing about that stuff,” said Trapp, who likes to tell people he loves the song “Analog Man” by Joe Walsh. “Me and computers don’t even get along that well.”

Harper didn’t care. “I want you to run this because you get stuff done,” Trapp recalled Harper saying.

Axon provided three cameras, free of charge, to the city via Trapp, and then hosted a training session in March 2012 at Pittsburgh police headquarters. Trapp was also in charge of putting together a policy for how body cameras would be used.

In Pennsylvania at the time, the state’s Wiretap Act prohibited officers from video recording inside private residences. Not knowing exactly how to work around that when writing the city’s body camera policy, Trapp went to the people he knew to be experts in body cameras — the Taser salespeople who he’d met in Harper’s office. They shared policies they’d seen and put Trapp in contact with police leaders around the country who were overseeing similar rollouts.

After an initial test period, the city ordered 50 body cameras for a little under $162,000. Allegheny County, at the request of the City of Pittsburgh, issued a sole source (no-bid) contract for the camera purchase, according to John Deighan, the county’s chief purchasing officer. The purchase was approved with little fanfare, and Trapp began implementing the city's body camera program.

Trapp’s relationship with Axon soon became closer.

On Aug. 18, 2012, Trapp received an email from Josh Isner, who had been named a Northeast sales executive at Axon; Isner is now the executive vice president of global sales. He wanted to know if Trapp would attend a conference at Axon’s Scottsdale headquarters to consult for the company as it created a body camera user course. “We will be happy to cover all your travel expenses in return for your insight and feedback.”

Axon’s headquarters is a gleaming, 100,000-square-foot steel-and-glass homage to Star Trek in the middle of the Arizona desert. Trapp accepted the invitation for the two-day training.

Photo courtesy of Axon

On Sept. 10, 2012, Taser put out a press release, with a glowing quote from Harper, announcing Pittsburgh’s 50-camera purchase.

It wasn’t long before Trapp was invited out to Scottsdale again.

In October 2012, Trapp received an invitation from a Taser product manager offering to make travel accommodations for Trapp to participate in an Axon training course. He didn’t go alone. Trapp invited three comrades — former Pittsburgh officer Michael Del Cimmuto; detective Wade Sarver; and use-of-force training officer David Wright. All expenses were paid by Axon.

Trapp became a trusted contact with Axon. He attended another conference in January 2013, right around the time the investigation into Harper’s own finances began to receive scrutiny. That investigation would eventually lead to Harper’s resignation as chief and his conviction on federal fraud charges.

By July 2013, Trapp had been asked to join the Axon Instructor program — a select group of police leaders traveling the country, with expenses paid by Axon, to show other police leaders how to use Axon cameras and products.

Parallel to this, an email exchange in October 2013 suggests that Axon representatives specifically urged Trapp to lobby in Harrisburg, at a Senate Committee hearing, while in his police uniform, for changes to the state’s Wiretap Act.

Trapp continued attending Axon conferences through 2014, and, by July that year, Trapp was selected to join the Consumer Advisory Board (CAB). Trapp accepted the nomination, and on July 28, 2014, he accepted the invitation to attend the first meeting in Scottsdale.

Photo courtesy of Axon

It was around this time that Trapp began to show in emails the first sign that he was aware his increasingly close relationship to Axon might be frowned upon if made public.

“I am supposed to chat with the local media in the next few days,” he wrote to a Taser product manager after being named to the advisory board. “Our [Public Information Officer] wanted me to mention being on the CAB. I am not big on the idea. What say you?”

The Taser representative did not object, but references to Trapp’s involvement in the advisory board appeared nowhere in Pittsburgh’s local media reports.

Though Trapp said in an interview with PublicSource that he only received travel-related expenses, emails indicate that members of Axon’s advisory board were paid a flat rate of as much as $700 per day while attending conferences, plus travel expenses, plus $50 per hour of travel time to attend meetings. It is not clear how many days Trapp provided services for the board, though he said he was not paid for his first meeting in 2014. Trapp’s Axon expense payments were streamlined through his personal account with Expensify — a third-party travel and expense web and mobile application — that is not subject to public records laws.

Trapp continued to attend advisory board meetings in Scottsdale and Seattle — where Axon’s data and body camera headquarters is located — through 2015 and the beginning of 2016 on Axon’s dime.

By January 2016, Trapp was acting as consultant and middleman to connect the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office with Axon to provide data storage services.

Trapp took advantage of an Axon-funded trip to Seattle in February 2016 as a way to bring along his son for what he called a “little vacation.”

Around that time, Pittsburgh had still only deployed the initial 50 body cameras it purchased from Axon in 2012, but Trapp was leading the city toward making a much larger investment in body cameras.

As the body camera testing continued, Trapp was consulted for his opinions about new Axon products, and new contracts the company hoped to sign with other agencies outside the City of Pittsburgh. He weighed in on the name of Axon Signal — a product that would automatically activate a body camera when a police cruiser’s light bar was turned on — and was included on sales emails seeking advice on who best to pitch in Allegheny County and state government for new contracts. Trapp continued to be connected with police departments in cities such as Scranton and Harrisburg by Axon representatives.

By late summer 2016, whatever previous concerns Trapp had about serving as an Axon consultant became more pronounced. His communications with Axon representatives became less verbose over email; emails from Trapp to Axon during this period came in short bursts — an affirmative response to an email here, a quick “here ya go” in response to a request for the city’s body camera policy there.

Then, after being promoted to commander in July 2016, he quit Axon’s Customer Advisory Board.

“I am tend[er]ing my resignation from the Customer Advisory Board, effective immediately,” he wrote in an Aug. 2, 2016, email to several high-ranking Axon employees, as well as Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Larry Scirotto and Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert. Trapp had been promoted from sergeant to commander, and he wrote: The “new role will result in me being more involved in the financial end of our program so, we want to avoid any possible appearance of a conflict of interest.”

This resignation was two months before Axon submitted its final quote for 550 body cameras to the city on Oct. 6, 2016.

Trapp was the only cop listed on that final price quote.

In November 2016, the city's leaders began publicly considering a $1.5 million contract with Axon. In March 2017, the city signed the deal, and Pittsburgh soon began handing out new body cameras to officers throughout the city.

This story was fact-checked by Evan Bowen-Gaddy.

Matt Stroud is a freelance reporter in Pittsburgh and a criminal justice researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. The subject of this PublicSource report is not related to the ACLU or Stroud’s work there. He encountered this information during research for his first book before he started his job at ACLU. The book is about the rise of 21st century technology in American law enforcement. The book is due out from Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @mattstroud.

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