Rick Smith admits there’s plenty he could have done differently back in June, when, in the days after the Uvalde massacre, he announced that his company, Axon, would begin developing Taser-equipped drones for schools — an announcement that prompted nine members of Axon’s AI ethics board to loudly resign in protest.
Smith could have consulted more with Axon’s in-house community impact team, the staffers whose very job is to think through how the company’s products might adversely affect marginalized groups. He could have taken the idea to Axon’s community advisory coalition, the group of outside activists Axon enlisted in 2021 to think about how its technology impacts racial justice and equity. He could have done a lot more research on the education system, which would be an entirely new market for Axon, before announcing such a radical intervention.
“In hindsight, it would have been better,” Smith said during an interview with Protocol. “But of course, part of the reason why hindsight is pretty good is because I now have the benefit of seeing what happened.”
Within a week of his initial announcement, Smith said Axon was “pausing” the project, citing “public concerns.” But while the rollout may have crashed and burned, Axon’s ambitions for Taser drones are still very much alive.
Active development on the project remains on hold, but over the last three months, Axon has been measuring public support for Taser drones and other school safety concepts and has fielded interest about the idea from law enforcement agencies, lawmakers at the state and federal level and even architectural firms that work with schools. This week, Smith said he’s holding his first roundtable with school principals and teachers to further explore the concept of Taser drones and other technologies.
“We've been doing a lot of work on public acceptance,” Smith said. “Even though it's a controversial idea, we find that people become more supportive the more they learn about it, the more they think about it.”
That did not appear to be the case, of course, with members of Axon’s AI ethics board. Before Smith’s announcement in June, the 13-member board, which consisted of leading academics in the field of privacy and policing, had spent about a year vetting a proposal by Axon to launch a Taser drone pilot program with law enforcement. Ultimately the board voted against that proposal, only to be blindsided by Smith’s announcement weeks later suggesting that these drones were being developed for schools.
“Even though it's a controversial idea, we find that people become more supportive the more they learn about it, the more they think about it.”
“We were told and given two days to react to something very different than something that we had reacted to. And we already said no to it,” Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia who later resigned from the ethics board, told Protocol in June. “It scares the living daylights out of a lot of us.”
Smith’s goal had been to propose a less lethal alternative to arming teachers or placing armed guards in schools, an idea being floated and even implemented in schools across the country. He believed Axon had a limited window to be part of the national conversation. “I had to make a decision at that time: Do we hold off and go do all of our homework and potentially see public entities and state legislatures making decisions without the benefit of our idea at least being out there in the public conversation?” Smith said. “I made the decision to put the idea out there without having first done the homework.”
The decision backfired. The drone idea and subsequent board resignations sparked a public outcry, about not just the increased weaponization of schools but also the overall efficacy of corporate ethics boards in general.
Smith said the resignations were his “greatest disappointment,” but not because he regrets acting against the board’s advice. “We talked with the board about the fact that they were not a voting board that was going to vote to approve policy,” Smith said. “I was perhaps naively proud of the fact that we were going to have a public disagreement with the members of our ethics board, which to me was really showing this isn't just theater or a rubber stamp.”
But Axon wound up sending the opposite message: that the company had made a big show of gathering some of the country’s foremost experts on AI ethics, then ignored their warnings when it mattered most. As one Redditor put it in a lengthy AMA session Smith held during the height of the fallout, “What is the point of an ethics board when you feel you are better equipped to decide what is and what isn't good for society, and thus view their guidance as mere suggestion?”
It wasn’t just the ethics board that felt sidelined by Smith’s announcement. A year earlier, Axon launched its community advisory coalition, which was supposed to represent the communities most impacted by law enforcement and the justice system. “Our immediate response was, ‘Where is the community perspective?’” said Wilneida Negrón, co-founder of the nonprofit Startups and Society Initiative and a member of the coalition. “We have community leaders that work in schools and have other community expertise that could have weighed in on the implications of using drones to stop school shootings.”
“What we’re trying to do is build a muscle of racial equity in our products,” said Regina Holloway, Axon’s vice president of community impact and relations, who is managing the relationship between the council and the company. Photos: Axon
If he has any regrets, Smith said failing to tap into that expertise is one, and he plans to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The company is now announcing a new advisory body called the Ethics and Equity Advisory Council, an 11-member group that will replace the old ethics and community boards and includes a cross section of academics as well as community organizers and activists. Members of this committee, most of whom served on the previous community coalition, will work directly with Axon developers early in the design process, holding quarterly trainings on what it means to build products with equity in mind. They’ll also have joint sessions with Axon’s corporate board to discuss concerns about the company’s product pipeline and will have a designated liaison on the product team.
“What we’re trying to do is build a muscle of racial equity in our products,” said Regina Holloway, Axon’s vice president of community impact and relations, who is managing the relationship between the council and the company. Holloway, a former senior program manager at NYU’s Policing Project, joined Axon in 2020 to focus on the unintended consequences of Axon’s work.
Despite Holloway's job description, Smith said he didn't consult much with her team about the Taser drone project prior to the announcement. Still, Holloway said, walking away from the company in the aftermath of the drone announcement wasn’t an option for her. “It could be seen as a question of privilege that you could end the dialogue,” Holloway said. "I can’t quit this work, because I have four Black children and two Black sons.”
Holloway said she's confident now that the company will do more to bring community feedback into the decision making process earlier "not because of what publicly went on, but because of the relationship that we're cultivating."
Members of the new advisory group also said the last few months had strengthened their position within Axon. “This was a chance for us to get still, to further refine our role in the organization and to work collectively and honestly to advocate, challenge and advance new ideas that keep communities safe,” said Desmond Patton, a professor at the Columbia School of Social Work.
"I can’t quit this work, because I have four Black children and two Black sons."
For now, Smith said the Taser drone work is still in a research phase. “We're going to talk to school administrators and see what the real reactions and concerns will be, what safeguards there would need to be,” he said.
Still, there’s no guarantee those consultations with educators or community members will allay fears about the use of Taser drones and other surveillance technology in schools or the disproportionate impact that technology could have on Black and brown kids. And Smith still isn’t making any promises that the new advisory council will have final say on that or any other product Axon pursues. “The commitment I've made and am making to the board is that we will discuss these concepts with them early, make sure that we understand their feedback and that we'll have those discussions well before there's any public announcements,” Smith said. “But I can't guarantee that we're all going to agree all the time.”