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​The Taser Is America’s Favorite Less-Lethal Weapon

At a time when police shootings dominate the news, the notion that Tasers are a safer way to subdue suspects than gunfire is a welcome one. If only it were so simple.

by Lucy Steigerwald
Dec 3 2015, 10:30pm

Photo by Brock Williams/Sundance Selects

When the Taser was being developed by a NASA researcher named Jack Cover in the late 1960s and early 70s, the premise was almost utopian: a weapon that could subdue criminals without killing them, or even doing them lasting harm. Even the name—originally an acronym for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, after the Tom Swift series of novels—speaks to the weapon's sci-fi origins.

It takes a lot of work for that sort of idea to become reality. The early Tasers used gunpowder to fire darts containing an electric charge at a target, and as a result they were classified as firearms. Once the invention was bought from Cover by a pair of entrepreneurs, however, the gunpowder was swapped for compressed air, they stopped technically being firearms, and today Taser International, Inc. brings in $164.5 million in revenue a year. The company has dominated the conducted energy device (CED) market for 15 years and supplies some 17,000 law enforcement departments around the world with its eponymous devices. (The company has also moved into manufacturing body cameras.)

At a time when police shootings dominate the news, the notion that Tasers are a safer way to subdue suspects than gunfire is a welcome one. But Nick Berardini, the filmmaker behind Killing Them Safely, a new documentary, wants people to know that while Tasers may be less lethal than guns, they're far from safe.

Berardini began work on his film five years ago, when he heard about the death of 23-year-old Stanley Harlan, who was Tasered after a traffic stop in Moberly, Missouri, near where Berardini was attending college. Harlan died in front of his parents after being zapped three times and going into cardiac arrest. (Taser's VP of Strategic Communications Steven Tuttle told VICE via email that "both the medical examiner and the courts have found that TASER did not cause the unfortunate death.") One of these Taser blasts lasted for 21 seconds, longer than most Taser tests, which tend to be closer to 16 seconds. Berardini was baffled that police didn't appear to understand how much harm their Tasers could cause.

"The officers stood around and eventually even said they believed [Harlan] was faking," he told me in a phone interview.

Though most Taser models can be used directly on the skin in "drive stun" mode, they are intended to be unleashed from a distance of up to 35 feet via the two barbed probes that are launched from the device. A short burst—five seconds at a time, though newer models include the option to hold the trigger and increase the duration—ideally incapacitates a person safely.

Like Tasers, pepper spray, batons, and newer less-lethal devices such as sound weapons are all controversial to one degree or another, and arguably deployed too often. Pepper spray's effect can last for 45 minutes, and in rare cases can apparently be fatal. Tear gas can be even more debilitating, and as the death of Eric Garner illustrated, even a simple chokehold can kill.

So the question is not so much whether Tasers can kill—they can. The question is whether when such deaths do occur, is it solely the fault of the officer using the weapon? Or can you lay some blame at the doorstep of the weapon's manufacturer?

Berardini thinks you can. He told me he's not a use of force expert, that he can't decide this kind of thing for law enforcement. He can, however, critique what he sees as the company downplaying the dangers of their product so that police departments would buy these expensive weapons.

Fundamentally, Berardini said Taser "changed how officers did their jobs. They basically overthrew the system of de-escalation, encouraged [cops] to embrace using force—not just to end dangerous confrontation, but any confrontation."

But Tuttle, the Taser spokesman, argues, "To take Berardini's film seriously, you have to buy into the dark conspiracy theory that the manufacturer possesses some secret knowledge of the dangers of their weapon and suppresses this like the tobacco industry did in the past"

There is no denying that the documentary takes aim at the company, but it's not exactly a hatchet job. Berardini says nice things about the company, pointing out that co-founders Rick and Tom Smith started off with decent ideas and a desire to help law enforcement and prevent the death of suspects. But he thinks the weapons were advertised as being less dangerous than they turned out to be. They didn't replace guns, but became a tool cops are all too eager to use, despite the risks. Tasers are becoming, as an Amnesty International spokesperson put it in 2013, "a weapon of first resort." The human rights group has been criticizing the use of Tasers for years, and in 2012, they said that more than 500 people had died after being hit by Tasers since the beginning of the 21st century.

When you're Tased, your muscles contract. Nerves fire. The idea is to stop you long enough for cops to restrain you, but depending on the subject's health, this shock to the system can be dangerous. Studies have been inconclusive about the effect of Taser blasts on the heart, but Taser International now warns against hitting suspects in the chest due to concerns about cardiac arrest. (Bernardini's documentary goes into this issue in detail and finds it credible.)

It should be said that Taser International has some solid numbers on its side. Some three million field uses, and two million tests of the weapon have taken place, and a 2011 study funded in part by the Department of Justice concluded, "the use of...[conducted energy devices] can significantly reduce injuries to suspects and the use of CEDs can decrease injuries to officers."

In Killing Them Safely, Tuttle compares the media coverage of Taser deaths to the coverage of plane crashes—the press never writes up the aircraft that land safely every day, or the thousands of times Tasers do their job. He also says, however, that the company doesn't claim their weapon is 100 percent safe, and never has done so.

One death Taser explicitly acknowledges as caused by its device is that of 18-year-old Israel Hernandez-Llach, a graffiti artist who in 2013 ran from the cops in Miami Beach, Florida, after he was spotted tagging an abandoned McDonald's. Hernandez-Llach was cornered, then ran toward the officers and was hit once in the chest by a Taser blast. He died an hour later. The medical examiner ruled that the Taser was the cause of death, but Officer Jorge Mercado, who used the weapon, was not charged because investigators ruled that he couldn't have known that the Taser would kill the teen. Essentially, the death was deemed a tragic fluke. (As recent history has demonstrated, cops are very rarely charged after the deaths of suspects, regardless of the weaponry they use.)

The latest version of the user manual contains many dire warnings about not using the device when someone might fall, or when they are near flammable materials. And Tuttle told me via email that the company has "warned since June 2005 that a [Taser] application is a physically stressful event and that the number and duration of... exposures should be restricted to the minimum necessary to achieve lawful objectives." Ultimately, it's up to cops to follow these guidelines. As Taser CEO Rick Smith toldFortune in 2011, "We don't enter into debates about policy, we just make the equipment. Once the agency makes the decision to use force, it's in their hands."

At one point in his film, though, Berardini hangs out with officers from Warren, Michigan. That department stopped using Tasers in 2012, six years after they began, and after two incidents where people died following use. One of these was 16-year-old Robert Mitchell, whose death was ruled in part due to the Taser blast fired at him. To that end, the documentary makes a compelling—albeit anecdotal—point about how some police didn't feel adequately warned about Taser's potential dangers.

Berardini is correct that if police were truly sold that this was an entirely harmless weapon, they were misled. But it's a mistake to consider Tasers in a vacuum—police officers also have beanbags, pepper spray, batons, and more, all weapons with their own risks in this era of militarized policing.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on Twitter.

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