The Taser’s Valley-based manufacturer claims the stun gun has saved more than 100,000 lives. But how safe is the revolutionary “less lethal” electric weapon?
Pickering, Ontario: Responding to a domestic dispute, police fire a Taser to subdue a naked, barricaded man who threatened to stab himself. The man survives.
London, England: A suspect wielding two knives and running through a Changing of the Guard ceremony near Buckingham Palace is subdued by an officer’s Taser. Nobody is seriously injured.
Phoenix, Arizona: A child-porn suspect is tased at home by police after he threatens them with a knife, then tries to flee. He is apprehended.
Crime-fighting stories like these underscore why the Taser was developed in Scottsdale 20 years ago this September. Taser International markets its electric weapon as a product that saves the lives of police and civilians – 107,153 and counting, the company claims.
But some Taser incidents raise questions:
Chicago, Illinois: The city agrees to pay $55,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman tased by police, when she was eight months pregnant, for refusing to sign a parking ticket.
Plymouth, England: A 32-year-old man who had doused himself with gasoline is tased by police responding to a domestic disturbance. The man dies nine days later of severe burns. An independent commission is asking why the Taser was fired despite warnings in the product package insert.
Brooklyn, New York: A policeman fires a Taser at a 35-year-old mentally ill man standing on a fire escape. The man falls 10 feet, lands on his head and dies. The officer who ordered the tasing, which violated NYPD’s policy against using a stun gun on someone who could fall from height, later commits suicide.
And many Valley residents are familiar with the December 2011 case of homeless and mentally ill Army veteran Ernest Marty Atencio, 44, who died a few days after being beaten and tased in Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Fourth Avenue Jail – all of it captured on the MCSO’s video surveillance system. The family’s wrongful death suit goes to trial next year. Of the case, Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle says: “While Taser does not comment on pending litigation involving our equipment, we continue to stand by the independent peer reviewed medical studies that have shown that the Taser CEWs [conducted-energy weapons] are generally safe and effective.”
But how safe is “generally” safe? Proponents of the Taser say it’s a much less deadly alternative to a gun and much more humane than a baton. “We’re at war here, with violence, rapes, murders,” Arpaio says in a Taser video endorsement on the company’s website. “So why not have private citizens being able to arm themselves and protect them and also their families? Having Taser is just another way to protect yourself from the bad guys.”
Arpaio is far from the only lawman sold on the device. More than 625,000 Tasers are used by upwards of 16,000 law enforcement agencies in 100-plus countries. The weapon gets used more than 900 times a day. Last year, Phoenix police used the Taser about 100 times “against subjects displaying active aggression,” department spokesman Sergeant Trent Crump says. Phoenix recently bought 2,300 new Tasers for about $2.8 million, on a five-year payment plan.
But critics argue the Taser is too often used on unarmed individuals who could instead be subdued verbally. In a state where the right to carry an AK-47 is sacrosanct, why are these supposedly less lethal stun guns so controversial?
About the same time Captain Kirk first commanded his crew to put “phasers on stun,” an earthbound inventor was dreaming up a similarly nonlethal weapon. In the late 1960s, nuclear physicist Jack Cover had a lightbulb moment. As Cover’s widow recalled in his 2009 New York Times obituary, the idea flickered to life when he heard news of a man who walked into an electrified fence and survived. Envisioning a weapon that could be used against airplane hijackers without perforating the fuselage with bullets, Cover invented the TASER, an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, to honor one of his favorite childhood books, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.
By 1974, Cover patented the Taser and went into business. Like present-day models, the original weapon fired electrified barbs. But because it used gunpowder, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives ruled the Taser couldn’t be sold to civilians, according to Taser International’s official history. The decision also discouraged police and military sales.
Seventeen years later, a shooting in Scottsdale catalyzed the rebirth of the Taser. While driving to a party at a Scottsdale resort, Todd Bogers, 23, and Cory Holmes, 24, somehow ignited the road rage of accountant/male model Kevin Osborn, then 26. Osborn had never met the pair but was on his way to the same party. In the parking lot, a shouting match ended when Osborn shot Bogers and Holmes dead.
The killings traumatized Scottsdale mom Patty Smith and her sons, Rick and Tom. The brothers had gone to high school with Bogers and Holmes, where Rick played football with them. Rick told GQ he bought Patty pepper spray, a gun, and a Doberman, but nothing calmed her fears. In 1993, the Smiths resolved to market their own defensive weapon. They learned about the Taser, found Cover living in Tucson, and decided his brainchild was just what they were looking for. They went into business with Cover, tweaking the design to sidestep federal restrictions.
The new Taser eliminated gunpowder, using instead a small replaceable cartridge filled with compressed nitrogen gas. Pull the trigger, and the gas propels twin wires tipped with barbed darts that can travel up to 35 feet on some police models. The barbed “probes” pierce human skin and can penetrate two inches of clothing. The Taser then pumps a flurry of 50,000-volt electrical pulses – pop-pop-pop-pop-pop – into the subject for five seconds per pull of the trigger, or longer if one keeps the trigger pressed. The electrical shock momentarily scrambles the human nervous system and contracts the muscles, resulting in impaired motor function and temporary paralysis, usually without loss of consciousness.
Though 50,000 volts sounds extremely high, company literature explains that voltage is merely the pressure required to push the electricity along the wire, like the water pressure in a hose. When it comes to impact, what counts is not voltage but current, measured in amps, akin to the flow speed of water through a hose. The Taser generates less than a single amp, less than what you’d get if you stuck your finger into a Christmas bulb socket.
The Smiths’ first Taser went on sale in 1993 at The Sharper Image, but the $800 price tag kept sales low. So the Taser company re-focused on the police and military markets. Today, Taser HQ in Scottsdale – which evokes the sleek, high-tech nerve center of Men in Black – employs 340 people full-time and manufactures four types of Tasers for police and four others for civilians. The company is traded on NASDAQ, reporting $114.8 million in 2012 net sales.
But getting there wasn’t easy. Like many stories involving guns, the Taser saga looked like it would end, badly, in Texas.
It was 1999, and Taser’s founding Smith brothers and their team were touring police departments nationwide, asking officers to participate in a demonstration. For demo purposes, the Smiths skipped the barb-firing sequence and simply embedded the darts manually into the volunteer’s skin. Then they’d turn on the juice. Five seconds was more than enough to knock most volunteers off their feet, to shock and awe the onlooking officers. But there’s always someone tougher out there. Like that time in Austin.
The Taser team was wowing a crowd at the annual Texas Public Safety meeting when a former Marine gunnery sergeant and martial arts trainer named Hans Marrero volunteered for a taste of Taser. Steve Tuttle tells what he saw: “He comes up, and he does this little meditation thing. And I look back at Rick and go ‘Well, that was different’... Rick hits the button. [Marrero] just stands there and vibrates. You can see the electricity going through him. He turns around [and says], ‘That’s pretty good. If you’d shot me and I didn’t know it was coming, you probably would have knocked me down.’”
After that, Tuttle says, the spell on the formerly awed crowd was broken. “If they’d had tomatoes, they would have been throwing them. The guffaws, the laughter was absolutely embarrassing.”
The start-up was sputtering along on its last $50,000, made up of loans from friends and family. Back at the Scottsdale drawing board, the team assembled a stronger Taser. But who to test it on? “Get me Hans Marrero,” Rick Smith demanded. Tuttle reached a contrite Marrero at his Pennsylvania home. “I’ve been thinking about you guys nonstop for several months now,” Tuttle recalls him saying. “I feel horrible, what I did to you guys.”
The Smiths flew Marrero into Sky Harbor and drove him straight to the Chandler police department. “We’re going to film you getting hit,” Tuttle told him. “If it doesn’t work, we’re done, we’re out of business.” Smith and Tuttle fixed wires to Marrero’s chest. Tuttle triggered the recalibrated device, which had never been tested on a human. “All of a sudden [Marrero] starts locking up,” Tuttle says. “I started to panic.” Tuttle turned off the juice. Marrero was still standing, shaking his head. “Rick comes over and thumps my head,” Tuttle recalls. “[He says], ‘What the hell! We’ve got to knock him down on the video. We’re out of business if this doesn’t knock him down.’”
But Marrero – still standing – was impressed. “Hey, but that was pretty amazing,” Tuttle recalls him saying. “That was a lot different from the last one.” He offered to try again. “But if I say all right, turn it off.” Tuttle says, “So I look at Rick, and Rick is like, Don’t you turn it off. I hit the button. All of a sudden [Marrero] locks up. ‘All right! All right!’ And boom, he goes down. I keep it on for an extra second. And he looks up and goes, ‘All right!’ And I turn it off. And he says, ‘Why didn’t you turn that off?’ And I’m thinking, Dude, I had to knock you down.”
Marrero quickly forgave. Smith and Tuttle took him on the road. They asked police departments for 10 minutes, promising to split if their new weapon failed to knock down all volunteers. The big ones fell hard, Tuttle says. But there was always a tough little guy, with a name like Mikey, “who eats pepper spray for breakfast.” The new improved Taser even knocked down the Mikeys. That got the attention of police chiefs.
It’s certainly not the classic scientific method, calibrating potentially lethal technology with an über-tough outlier like Marrero, rather than a cross section of average folk. But imagine you’re a cop confronting the rare suspect who can’t be stopped by control holds, pepper spray, punches, or K-9 bites, Tuttle says. “Law enforcement, SWAT teams, or special forces... want to know for themselves firsthand if the technology works or if it’s a gimmick. They won’t go home to their families if it’s a gimmick.”
The Marrero standard is one reason getting tased feels like it does.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” Pinal County deputy sheriff Ramon Gonzales says of the tasing he received as part of his training.
“Not a pleasant experience, I can tell you,” says ASU criminologist Michael D. White, who took a shot for science.
“It was excruciatingly painful, like someone reached into my body to rip my muscles apart with a fork,” NPR’s Laura Sullivan said in 2005.
But many who’ve been tased, including Tuttle, say it’s no big deal. Scottsdale management consultant Dana Shafman agrees. In 2006, after a couple of stalkers left her unharmed but rattled, she wanted a Taser for Christmas. The only way she could afford a consumer-model Taser, $1,000 at the time, was to go into business as a part-time dealer and trainer. “They shot me in the rear end, which is really nice because the more fat you have, the less it hurts.”
She still carries a red, $399 single-shot C2 model, which she’s never had to use, but it bolsters her peace of mind. Deputy sheriff Gonzales also hasn’t needed to use his Taser in the five years he’s been carrying. Just having it visible, in a shoulder holster, is intimidating enough, he says – a selling point Taser International is quick to make.
The demos starring Marrero – now Taser International’s chief instructor – changed everything for the company. Early adopters included the police departments of Sacramento, Albuquerque, and Phoenix, the first major U.S. city to buy one for every officer.
The police like Tasers, Tuttle says, because “they’ve got something that’s putting people down for five seconds, which is plenty of time to put somebody in a control position, to cuff them, and the guys recover instantly. No more chemical spray clean-up, no more babysitting in the hospital for the next 40 minutes and being miserable. We’re not getting hit by the pepper spray in the squad car. No more baton strikes, which are pretty crude.”
The company cites a study that shows excess-force complaints dropped 95 percent among 149 Michigan police departments between 2003, when they began to buy the Taser, and 2008. Even most Taser critics see a place for the weapon in law enforcement. For example, the January 2013 shooting death by Scottsdale police of Iraq War vet Jason Prostrollo might have been avoided if any of the six Tasers on the scene had been used instead of bullets.
The device has been widely adopted by the corrections industry and the U.S. military, and is even making inroads in the animal-control field. But it’s not an unqualified success story. San Francisco, the only major U.S. city that doesn’t arm police with Tasers, recently rejected a plan to adopt them. Police chief Greg Suhr says concerns about tasing the old, young, mentally ill, or wet make it impractical. A police union spokesman blames that perspective on “liberal nonsense.”
Taser did not expect a “love fest” from Amnesty International or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Tuttle says. But he thought they’d see the value of a less lethal weapon. “Instead it seemed like one of their tour de forces for fundraisers that went on. It really was incredible how much they came out against it and wanted it banned.”
Amnesty International USA wants consumer use banned but no longer favors taking Tasers from police. Amnesty counts 500 U.S. deaths following tasing from 2001-2012 but allows that just 60 deaths were linked to the Taser by medical examiners. Tuttle says that because some people died weeks after being tased, it doesn’t prove the Taser was the cause of death.
According to Jared Feuer, Amnesty’s deputy director of membership mobilization in Georgia, the company has never undertaken a serious study. “We don’t have good information, a comprehensive and independent medical study on individuals who have died, and what was the reasoning behind it,” he says. Do the study first, “then use that to inform policy,” he says.
Amnesty adds that among people who died sometime after being tased, only about 10 percent were armed. Its 2011 report raises questions about physically or mentally vulnerable people, and those subjected to repeated tasings.
ACLU of Arizona examined Taser use from 2008-2010 among 20 Arizona law enforcement agencies. While supporting the use of “less lethal” weapons to protect lives, the group also says the Taser doesn’t reduce the use of lethal force: “The information provided by departments... suggests that Tasers have been deployed in situations where lethal force would not be allowed, and where less severe uses of force are available.”
A 2011 report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) says Tasers and electric weapons should be used only on the dangerously aggressive. “All too often, Tasers are used ‘preemptively’ against citizens that do not present an imminent safety threat,” according to Arizona ACLU. “What’s more, both Taser International training materials and agency policies anticipate that officers will use the weapon as a pain [inducing] compliance tool.”
In 2007, the “Don’t tase me, bro” Internet meme was born when a Florida student got zapped by campus security because he wouldn’t relinquish a microphone he was using to badger John Kerry. Did the student pose the clear and present danger of talking Kerry to death? The incident bolstered Taser criticism.
Amnesty says police should either stop using Tasers or limit their use to the last resort before lethal force or firearms. Tuttle calls that naive: In a fully escalated deadly-force situation, officers will choose the bullet over the Taser every time, he says.
Almost everybody agrees that training could be better. Thousands of officers carry Tasers, notes company CEO Rick Smith, and some of them do “unbrilliant things.” PERF and others say police trainers should not rely completely on manufacturers for training or information. Arizona’s ACLU suggests a state commission to establish clear, uniform guidelines for Taser use.
Civilian buyers face “an extensive background check,” but training is optional. A Taser-packing consumer is supposed to aim, fire, put the weapon down, and run the hell away; as such, the jolt from consumer models lasts up to 30 seconds, to give the civilian more time to flee. Some models allow up to three shots, in case you miss or need to tase more than one person. Consumer Tasers are illegal in six states, and in some counties and cities.
Like firearms, stun guns have criminal users, too. In April, Queens police arrested a man who allegedly stunned a 23-year-old jogger with a Taser and tried to rape her. Earlier this year in suburban Philadelphia, several people were reportedly tased and robbed, including a woman just outside the Chinese restaurant where she worked. Because “Taser” is often used as a generic term, it’s not clear what kind of stun gun was used. Some Taser models record firing data, and others have built-in cameras that turn on when the weapon is fired. Upon firing, both police and consumer models release dozens of tiny multicolored paper circles called AFIDs (Anti-Felon Identification). The confetti-like bits are printed with barcode-type symbols, to identify the particular Taser that was fired. News reports don’t state whether police were using Taser’s AFID markers to track down the misused weapons.
I Sting the Body Electric
Taser International points to more than 400 medical papers, abstracts, and other documents espousing the Taser’s effectiveness and safety. That includes eight studies covering 48,228 subjects that suggest the weapon reduces the use of lethal force by police.
However, a 2012 paper by cardiologist Douglas P. Zipes of the Indiana School of Medicine’s Krannert Institute of Cardiology was the first peer reviewed study to conclude the Taser can provoke cardiac arrest. Zipes based the study on eight previously healthy men who suffered cardiac arrest, as indicated by electrocardiograms, within 30 minutes of being tased. All but one died.
Taser International blasted the study for relying on such a small sample. Another 2012 study, which reviewed 1,201 cases, found no link between Tasers and cardiac complications, even among subjects tased in the chest. The study’s lead author, William P. Bozeman, M.D. of Wake Forest Baptist University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says in an email to PHOENIX magazine: “Dr. Zipes’ approach and conclusions produced controversy among and were not fully accepted by other experts in the field.”
Some scientists involved in Taser studies are Taser International consultants, expert witnesses, or stockholders, but Tuttle notes, “The vast majority of these studies have been independent of Taser.” Zipes was a paid expert witness in lawsuits against the company. “When you cannot attack the science,” Zipes says, “attack the scientist. Basically that’s what they’ve done.” Shortly after his study was published, Cincinnati police banned Taser shots to the chest, except when necessary for self-defense.
The Taser company has fired back vigorously against death claims. It sued two medical examiners who listed the Taser as a cause of death, says Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, past president of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME). That came “dangerously close to intimidation,” Jentzen said in 2008, and he says the same thing today. “There were other [NAME] members that came forward saying that Taser had basically challenged their findings, even before the case had been certified, and in a threatening manner.” Tuttle shrugs off the criticism, noting that a judge did rule in Taser’s favor, ordering an Ohio ME to remove references to the Taser on a death certificate.
Another simmering medical question involves the brain. A Canadian cop who was accidentally tased in 2009 suffered a brain seizure for about a minute, according to a report in the Canadian Medical Journal. ASU criminologist Michael White is now crunching numbers for a study on whether the Taser affects cognitive functions. He says some lawyers claim the just-tased are too addled to understand their Miranda rights.
Taser continues to face challenges in the legal arena. Last year Taser faced 28 wrongful death suits, and is appealing a $10 million verdict from 2011. In 2006, it settled a $20 million suit by shareholders who said the company misled them about safety.
But Taser use also continues to expand. In April, three North Carolina legislators wrote a bill allowing school personnel to carry Tasers and other weapons. And controversy aside, many now agree the Taser has a place in law enforcement.
“We revolutionized law enforcement,” Tuttle says. “We changed the way they do business and the way the public expects them to do business... A true revolution comes with sincere pain.”
When a meteor exploded over the Urals last February, it was widely videoed by the dashboard cameras many Russians use to protect themselves against police abuses and attacks by fellow citizens. Similar thinking went into a Taser product launched last year.
Called the Axon Flex, it’s a small video camera that clips to an officer’s collar or glasses, shooting a 30-second loop when the user turns it on. When a video-worthy encounter begins, the officer taps the camera to continue recording. Taser touts Axon as a way to protect police from false accusations. Knowing they’re on “COPS on steroids,” as one blogger calls it, helps keep citizens and officers on their best behavior, Tuttle says.
During a one-year study of Axon with police in Rialto, California, complaints against the department fell by more than 87.5 percent, Taser literature says. In Arizona, Axon is being tested in Mesa and Lake Havasu City.
Unlike dash-cams, cell phones, or overhead cameras, Tuttle says, Axon captures unfolding events from the officer’s point of view. When the officer puts the camera in its iPod-like docking station, the camera uploads everything it captured to a cloud-based data warehouse.
“In theory, this sounds like it’s a pretty positive move forward,” Arizona ACLU executive director Alessandra Soler says. But she wants, among other things, assurance against tampering. Tuttle says every frame is automatically marked in sequence, so it’s impossible to edit the footage without leaving a trace. But Taser’s 2012 stockholders’ report notes a grim modern reality: Hacking happens.
In addition, Taser recently introduced a wireless system that uses a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun to deliver electrified barbs up to 100 feet. It uses gunpowder and, subject to ATF regs, is intended for the military market. Another new Taser, intended for crowd control, fires six cartridges to “saturate” a 20-degree arc up to 25 feet. A new consumer model lets the user fire three cartridges at once.
Tuttle says a few police SWAT teams have Taser-equipped robots, but “the rumor about the Taser [aerial] drones just won’t die.” Some military blogs report 2011 Taser-drone tests by the Department of Homeland Security, for possible use in Afghanistan and West Africa. Wired.com’s Danger Room blog reported on French plans for aerial crowd control tasing in 2007.
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