AT ONE POINT in Killing Them Safely, Nick Berardini’s new documentary on Taser’s bloodless response over the last decade to the charge that its stun guns have caused hundreds of cardiac deaths, CEO and co-founder Rick Smith gives a wistful PowerPoint presentation to an enthusiastic audience. One slide depicts the old corporate liability proverb of the shark and the coconut tree. The shark, so the story goes, swims faster, has more teeth, and inspires great terror, yet many more people die every year from coconuts falling on their heads than from shark attacks. “We tend to focus on things that perhaps capture our imagination more than the facts,” muses Smith. Whether or not falling coconuts actually pose a deadly threat, there has been only one fatal shark attack in the U.S. this year, but according to a recent Guardian investigation 47 people died in the first 10 months of 2015 immediately after being tased by a police officer.
No doubt Smith meant to admonish those who claim that Tasers are deadly, but his shark parable could be read sideways too, as a statement of purpose. Taser’s business model, founded on a strategic appeal to concerns about safety, depends on the inherent slipperiness of facts. In his film, Berardini makes the case that there’s something fanatical in Taser’s enthusiasm for risk management, for finding language both to create and resolve any imaginable threat.
Two brothers, Rick and Tom Smith, founded Taser International in 1993. That year, they released their first stun gun, the Air Taser, but quickly found it wasn’t powerful enough to stop “motivated individuals” from fighting through the shock. By 1999, according to former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, in an interview for the film, the brothers “didn’t have a viable product to market” — they were in debt and about to lose the money their parents had invested. That year Taser began developing the M26, a product at least three times as powerful as its predecessor, and then pushed the new product onto the market after light and selective testing on human subjects. Today 17,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries use Tasers. The company’s unofficial motto, repeated by executives throughout the film, is that they are in the business of “protecting life, and protecting truth.”
The main threat that launched the Taser founders’ imaginations — and the militarization of policing, which continues its expansion today — was a spike in violent crime in the 1980s. By the time the first Taser was sold in the early 1990s, those numbers were already dwindling, but the racist myth of imminent danger from unbeatable “superpredators” was not. Coupled with this miasmic fear, Taser broadened its appeal by pushing the line that its products save lives with the argument that every Taser jolt administered by a police officer potentially represented the prevention of a gun fatality. In 2011 Rick Smith appeared on ABC News and compared the pain inflicted by a Taser to chemotherapy: “If you have cancer they do awful things to your body to try and save you. Well, our society has a cancer, we’re a violent, dangerous society.”
Like tobacco companies faced with evidence that cigarettes cause cancer, or oil companies faced with climate change, Taser’s reaction to evidence of harm from its product is to sow doubt and uncertainty. But the film also demonstrates the repeated leaps of mythological imagination Taser has made in order to protect its white-knight reputation. In 2008, security cameras captured unarmed 17-year-old Darryl Turner’s final moments as he was tased to death by police, following a verbal altercation with his former boss. The response from Smith, as documented in Berardini’s film, was typical of the company’s attempts to deflect responsibility: “It’s not a well-understood phenomenon why young, otherwise healthy people collapse and die during physically stressful events.”
Or take the case of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who in 2007 got lost in Vancouver’s airport for hours, was inappropriately detained by guards, then tased by police until he died. “What was this guy doing in the airport for nine hours? Flying? Off his cigarettes?” asked Taser vice president Steve Tuttle, not quite rhetorically, before suggesting, “All of these things come into play.” In June the officer who deployed the Taser that killed Dziekanski was given a 30-month prison sentence for perjury and colluding with his fellow officers during the pursuant investigation.
According to the documentary, Taser maintains that its products caused neither of those deaths, and indeed no deaths ever. Now it’s not even the shark that kills you, but your own body as it collapses, coincidentally after having received a 50,000-volt shock. Meanwhile, Taser’s own count of lives the company has saved has grown to around 160,000. The flip side of Taser’s self-serving corporate narrative is that there really isn’t much evidence that Tasers prevent gun fatalities, but there’s plenty of video demonstrating that Taser opened up new opportunities for police violence, handily replacing the inconvenient old cattle prod as a torture device, and that the product has killed and maimed hundreds of people.
Taser’s line of body cameras, which the company has sold since 2006, and its cloud-based video storage system add another absurd twist to the company’s longtime practice of manufacturing entire safety dramas, from threat to solution. The company whose product has contributed perhaps more than any other to the high rate of police violence, aimed in particular at people of color, is now doubling down on delivering the cure.
In the weeks following the killing of Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, body cameras became a subject of national discussion, and Taser’s stocks jumped by 50 percent. Advocates of body cameras, from President Obama to Hillary Clinton and Campaign Zero, have maintained that they reduce police brutality by making police interactions with the public more transparent.
That’s a highly contested assertion. Numerous reports have detailed flaws in the technology as well as uneven usage and regulation. Taser’s cameras, for instance, buffer video every 30 seconds, a common feature that allows some images of the interaction directly preceding the recording to be saved, but the buffer doesn’t record sound. Tuttle, speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in October, claimed that the lack of sound was designed to protect officers’ privacy.
In a stunning rendition of the old Taser tagline, Rick Smith told Fortune magazine that Taser’s body cam was “a non-lethal weapon. The average rational person, when you tell them you’re filming them, will act more rationally.” Of course, the idea of a camera being used as a weapon completely misses the point of the movement for police accountability that Taser is capitalizing on, but that’s precisely the kind of reversal that’s fundamental to the company’s business model. If Taser had a spirit animal, I suspect it would be a shark.