On Thursday, a small group of people protesting the lack of accountability for Breonna Taylor’s killing were met outside the Shelby County Jail in Memphis, Tenn., by sheriff’s deputies wielding equipment local activists had never seen before: shock shields capable of delivering up to 320 volts of electricity.
“They wanted to show off their new toys, is what it appeared to me,” Hunter Demster, one of the protestors, told Motherboard. “There were 25 people out at this rally. I think that was an intimidation tactic, I think that was an escalation tactic.”
After Motherboard requested documents regarding what have been colloquially called "taser shields" and their use, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. released a statement on Friday describing the incident as a “regrettable mistake” and saying his office would modify its policy to ensure deputies never used the shields outside the jail again.
But Compliant Technologies, the Kentucky company that sold the the shields to the Shelby County Sheriff in July for $895 each, believes its range of electrical shock tools will “create a more amiable atmosphere” between police and the general population, which is increasingly “demonizing our men and women in uniform through political agenda, social media and one-sided video,” according to a post on the company’s Facebook page. TASER devices, meanwhile, are made by a company called Axon.
Compliant Technologies was founded in 2018 by Jeff Niklaus, a former Army helicopter pilot who participated in the deadly 1993 mission in Mogadishu, Somalia that inspired the movie “Black Hawk Down.” He has recently posted messages from the company’s Facebook page that suggest he is a believer in the QAnon conspiracy theory.
On February 10, the company posted a photo of Attorney General William Barr with the caption “just wrapped up a great conference at the [National Sheriff’s Association] Winter Conference with a speech from Attorney General William Barr. Awesome! WWG1WGA! USA!” The acronym, which stands for “where we go one, we go all” is frequently used by QAnon adherents.
In addition to its shields, Compliant Technologies also sells gloves that can deliver electric shocks, shock armbands and vests that can be put on prisoners and activated from 300 yards away by a remote control, shock batons, and a seven-foot restraint pole called "The Claw."
On its list of references, the company says its products have been used by the New York Department of Correction, Cincinnati Police Department, Louisville Police Department, and a number of smaller sheriff’s offices and county jail systems. In another Facebook post, Niklaus claims that he has met with representatives from the U.S. Department of Defense and a hospital system in Maryland.
Police and correctional officers have used electric riot shields for decades, and the Shelby County Sheriff’s office has used them since 1990 inside the jail, but the incident on Thursday appears to be the first time an agency has deployed them in response to the recent wave of peaceful protests for black lives.
In its statement the sheriff’s office wrote that the amount of electricity the shields transmit “appears to be lower than a 4.8 watt Christmas tree light and far less than tasers which can be 50,000 volts at discharge. The temporary electrical shock delivered by e-shield is non-injurious and does not enter the body.”
In the user manual for its shock glove product, which delivers roughly the same amount of electricity as the shields, Complaint Technologies warns that when not used properly or when used on people with underlying health issues the use of its conducted electrical weapons may lead to conditions like increased blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline, which can cause sudden death.