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Stunning Revelations (cont’d)

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Former U.S. Marshal Matthew Fogg, a long-time SWAT specialist and vice president of Blacks in Government, says that if stun guns are going to be used by law enforcement, training on their use should be extensive, and that the weapons should also be placed high up on what police officers call the “use-of-force continuum.”

Fogg isn’t alone in calling for such measures. In October 2005, the Police Executive Research Forum, an influential police research and advocacy group, recommended that law enforcement only be allowed to use Tasers on people aggressively resisting arrest. The organization also recommended that law enforcement officers needed to step back and evaluate the condition of suspects after they had been shocked once. Similar recommendations were included in an April 2005 report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. That report also urged police departments to evaluate whether certain vulnerable groups–including the mentally ill–should be excluded altogether from being shot with Tasers. 

Although Fogg’s organization has called for an outright ban of Tasers until further research can be conducted, Fogg says that he knows responsible members of law enforcement are perfectly capable of using the weapons effectively. Officers who are willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of the community, he emphasizes, must be given the tools and training to be able to minimize harm to themselves and to others.

Fogg, who also serves on the board of Amnesty International USA, says that too many members of law enforcement seem to be using them as compliance mechanisms. “It’s something along the lines of, ‘If I don’t like you, I can torture you,’ ” he says.

Some law enforcement agencies have already implemented careful use policies, including the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which selectively hands out Tasers to carefully trained deputies. The department also prohibits use of Tasers on subjects already “under control.” According to Sheriff Michael Hennessey, deputies are not allowed to use stun guns in response to minor ineffectual threats, as a form of punishment, or on juveniles or pregnant women. Within the department, stun guns are purposely set to turn off after five seconds. Additionally, every use of the weapon in a jail facility must be videotaped.

“I authorize Tasers to be used on people who are at high risk of hurting themselves or deputies,” Sheriff Hennessey emphasizes. “Without options like these, the inmate and the deputies are much more likely to get seriously hurt.”

But when stun guns are used on people who don’t fit that criteria, Secrest says, the public should be asking serious questions about the efficacy of Taser use, particularly because of the emotional trauma related to Taser-related take-downs.

“When a person comes into our office after they’ve been [Tased], it’s not as much the physical pain they talk about as much as the humiliation, the disrespect,” she says. “The people [who are stunned by these guns] talk about not being able to move, and thinking that they were going to die.”

As for actual Taser-associated deaths, Secrest believes that they should be investigated just as thoroughly as deaths involving firearms. Instead, Taser injuries and deaths are typically justified because officers report that the suspect was resisting an arrest.

“That’s the magic word: ‘resisted,’” says Secrest. “Any kind of police oversight investigation tends to end right there.”

Capitalizing on 9/11

Despite these concerns, Taser International Inc. has thrived. The 9/11 terrorist attacks sent the company’s profits soaring. Many domestic and international airlines–as well a variety of major law enforcement agencies–were eager to acquire a new arsenal of weapons. Homeland Security money flooded into both state and federal-level departments, many of which were gung-ho to acquire a new arsenal of high-tech gadgets.

In 2002, Taser brought on former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik as the company’s director. Kerik had attained popularity in the wake of 9/11 as a law-and-order-minded hero; the company had seemingly picked one of the best spokespersons imaginable.

With Kerik’s help, company’s profits grew to $68 million in 2004, up from just under $7 million in 2001, and stockholders were able to cash in, including the Smith family, who raked in $91.5 million in just one fiscal quarter in 2004.

Unbeknownst to most stockholders, however, sales have been helped along by police officers who have received payments and/or stock options from Taser to serve as instructors and trainers. (The exact number of officers on the payroll is unknown because the company declines to identify active-duty officers who have received stock options.)

The recruitment of law enforcement has been crucial to fostering market penetration. For instance, Sgt. Jim Halsted of the Chandler, Ariz., Police Department, joined Taser President Rick Smith in making a presentation to the Chandler city council in March 2003. He made the case for arming the entire police patrol squad with M-26 Tasers. According to the Associated Press, Halsted said, “No deaths are attributed to the M-26 at all.”

The council approved a $193,000 deal later that day.

As it turned out, Halsted was already being rewarded with Taser stock options as a member of the company’s “Master Instructor Board.” Two months after the sale, Halsted became Taser’s Southwest regional sales manager.

In addition, Taser has developed a potent gimmick to sell its futuristic line of weapons. In 2003, Taser premiered the X-26. According to Taser’s promotional materials, the X-26 features an enhanced dataport to help “save officer’s careers from false allegations” by recording discharge date and time, number and length and date of discharges, and the optional ability to record the event with the Taser webcam. The X-26 also boasts a more powerful incapacitation rating of 105 “Muscular Disruption Units”, up from 100 MDU’s for the M-26.

The X-26 is apparently far more pleasing to the eye. As Taser spokesperson Steve Tuttle told a law enforcement trade journal, “It’s a much sexier-looking product.”

Lawsuits jolt Taser

As increasing numbers of police departments obtained Taser stun guns, the weapons started to be deployed against civilians with greater frequency.

Many of the civilian Taser-associated incidents have resulted in lawsuits, most of which have either been dismissed or settled out of court. But there have been a few exceptions.

In late September, Kevin Alexander, 29, was awarded $82,500 to settle an excessive force federal lawsuit after being shocked 17 times with a Taser by a New Orleans Parish police officer. The department’s explanation: the shocks were intended to make him cough up drugs he had allegedly swallowed.

One recently settled Colorado case involved Christopher Nielsen, 37, who was “acting strangely” and was not responsive to police orders after he crashed his car. For his disobedience, he was stunned five times. When it was revealed that Nielsen was suffering from seizures, the county settled the case for $90,000.

An Akron, Ohio, man also recently accepted a $35,000 city settlement. One day in May 2005, he had gone into diabetic shock and police found him slumped over his steering wheel. Two officers proceeded to physically beat, Mace and Taser him after he did not respond to orders to get out of the car.

Taser’s lack of response to the misuse of the company’s weapons is troubling. The company relentlessly puts a positive spin on Taser use, most recently with a “The Truth is Undeniable” Web ad campaign, which contrasts mock courtroom scenes with the fictionalized, violent antics of civilians that prompt police to stungun them.

The campaign involves print ads, direct mail DVDs and online commercials that “draw attention to a rampant problem in this country: false allegations against law enforcement officers,” according to Steve Ward, Taser’s vice president of marketing.

“We’re going to win”

The lawsuits have scared off some investors, making Taser’s stock extremely volatile over the years. But press coverage of the company this past summer largely centered around Taser’s “successes” in the courtroom. In addition to settling a $21.8 million shareholder lawsuit revolving around allegations that the company had exaggerated the safety of their product (they admitted no wrongdoing), Taser has triumphed in more than 20 liability dismissals and judgments in favor of the company. And the company’s finances are on the upswing: Third-quarter 2006 revenues increased nearly 60 percent.

Regardless, CEO Rick Smith claims his company is target of a witchhunt. “We’re waiting for people to dunk me in water and see if I float,” is how he put it during a March 2005 debate with William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Last year, with 40 new lawsuits filed against it, Taser dedicated $7 million in its budget to defending the company’s reputation and “brand equity.” The company has also gone on the offense, hiring two full-time, in-house litigators.

At one point, Taser hinted that it might sue Amnesty International for taking a critical position regarding Taser-associated injuries and deaths. In November 2004 Smith announced that the company’s legal team had begun a “comprehensive review of AI’s disparaging and unsupported public statements [to] advise me as to various means to protect our company’s good name.”

In one of the company’s brashest legal maneuvers to date, Taser sued Gannett Newspapers for libel in 2005. The lawsuit alleged USA Today “sensationalized” the power of Taser guns by inaccurately reporting that the electrical output of the gun was more than 100 times that of the electric chair. This past January, a judge threw the case out, saying that the error in the article was not malicious, and that the story was protected by the First Amendment.

The company remains unwavering and aggressively protective, even as Taser-associated deaths mount each month. As Smith told the Associated Press in February, “If you’re coming to sue Taser, bring your game face, strap it on and let’s go. We’re gonna win.”

From Jack Wilson’s standpoint, citizens are the real losers. His son Ryan lost his life in a situation that could have been handled any number of other ways, and no amount of legal posturing can bring Ryan back.

“I still can’t believe my son is gone,” he says. “The fact is that these Tasers can be lethal. No matter how they’re categorized, Tasers shouldn’t be treated as toys.”

Thanks to the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund for research support, and to David Burnett for research assistance.

Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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