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July, 2013, Page 96
Photos by Sam Nalven
- Find more notoriousness with bonus
from our Tasing Arizona feature.
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:
: 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.
: 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.”
TASER is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle
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?
A deconstructed Taser (clockwise from
: controller board; X2 handle; TASER Smart Cartridge (containing compressed nitrogen, Anti-Felon Identification tags, and two probes); lasers and LEDs; internal high-voltage board; TASER CAM HD recorder
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.
Photos - Clock-wise from top left: The sci-fi movie- and aircraft carrier-inspired headquarters of Taser International in Scottsdale • Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle fires the Taser’s projectiles • Taser’s wall of patents • Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle demonstrates drive-stun mode.
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.’”
one of Taser’s stages of manufacture
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.”
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