A Taser shock has been called the “longest five seconds of your life.” It incapacitates the nervous system. It causes a loss of bowel and bladder control. It produces a 50,000-volt shock from up to 10 yards away that pulsates through the body and causes every muscle fiber to recoil and stiffen. Yet Taser International and the Minneapolis Police Department stress that the Taser is an extremely safe non pain-compliance tool. “It saves lives,” they insist.
Despite these reassurances, in November a United Nations Committee ruled that Taser use constitutes a “form of torture” that can result in death. And just this week a federal jury in San Jose found the company responsible for the death of a 40-year-old man, awarding his family more than $6 million in punitive and compensatory damages. It was a landmark case, the first of at least 69 wrongful-death lawsuits filed against Taser that the company has lost.
The family’s victory caused Taser’s stock to plummet 12 percent on Monday. Taser scrambled to reassure Wall Street with a specious PR campaign emphasizing that the jury found Taser "only" 15 percent responsible for the man’s death. Reassuring Wall Street, after all, is paramount to Taser International’s ongoing success: Analysts are banking on Taser’s earnings jumping 50 percent this year.
While Taser is hoping to reach that figure by expanding its reach in the consumer and overseas markets with more “fashionable” Tasers, the company continues to capitalize on the fear of 9/11 and the police departments that have grown increasingly militaristic because of it. Recently, the St. Paul Police Department purchased 230 additional Tasers, so that it will have one each for all of its 370 officers, just in time for the Republican National Convention. And earlier this week it was announced that 3,050 New York Police Department sergeants, or about 10 percent of NYPD officers, are adding the M-26 Taser to their belts.
From a ‘deadly-force alternative’ to something like a punch in the gut
One reason for Taser’s increasing windfall has been that the company has turned its original weapon-focused marketing initiative upside down by insisting the Taser is a hand-held lifesaver. Retired Minneapolis police officer Michael Quinn was a part of one of the first groups of MPD officers to get trained on stun guns. “It appeared like a useful tool,” Quinn says. “But even then the department as a whole was concerned about abuse of the weapon.” Quinn spent more than 20 years in the MPD and is author of "Walking with the Devil," a book about the police code of silence.
At the time of Quinn’s stun-gun training, the leading manufacturer of such devices — the company that would go public in 2001 as Taser International — was on the verge of bankruptcy. After failing to tap the consumer market with products like the Auto Taser, an alternative to The Club that locked on steering wheels and came equipped with a motion-sensor alarm, the company began aggressively marketing its new stun gun, the Taser, to law-enforcement agencies. By the end of 1998, more than 100,000 Tasers were sold in the United States. Since then, more than 400,000 Taser devices have been sold to U.S. law-enforcement officials.
“I kept tabs on the Taser and went to a number of demonstrations,” Quinn says. “The Taser first came out as an option to the use of deadly force. In the case where there was extreme risk to yourself or somebody else, Taser was a great option.”
Quinn remembers watching sales and training videos that detailed only uncommonly dangerous scenarios as examples when the Taser should be deployed. “When you saw the original sales videos, they used pretty extreme cases, like ‘Here’s a guy wielding a machete we can’t get close to, or here’s a guy wielding a knife or another weapon.’ They were able to Tase him from a distance and not get hurt,” Quinn recalls.
“It used to be put below deadly force, but not a long ways below that, on the use-of-force continuum,” Quinn continues. “Now it’s slid down that force continuum, where at some agencies if someone presents even a verbal resistance and says I am not going to go with you, officers are justified in using the Taser.”
According to an MPD manual revision (pdf) from April 2006: “The use of Tasers is normally considered to be at the ‘hard empty hand’ level of force [kicks, punches, or other striking techniques] or above on the MPD’s Use of Force Continuum. This level of force is approved for aggressive resistance and above. Tasers shall not be used on passive subjects or as a come-along tool.”
The MPD also says that “Tasers may only be used on children, visibly frail persons, women who are known to be pregnant, and people with known heart problems when other hard empty-hand control methods have failed or deadly force is justified.”
The St. Paul Police Department’s requirements regarding Taser use are even less specific. The Taser Usage Procedures (pdf) sent to Minnesota Independent do not outline a use-of-force continuum nor any approved level of force. Instead, the procedures mostly pertain to protocol for filing required paperwork after the device is deployed. Repeated calls to the St. Paul Police Department asking for more specific information on guidelines related to Taser use were not returned.
Taser training videos: Not for public consumption
Taser International would not make its current marketing and training materials available to Minnesota Independent for review. “A lot of our marketing is personalized,” spokesperson Peter Holran says. “We tailor it to the client’s needs.” Holran would also not make available the marketing materials his team provided to the St. Paul Police Department in advance of the RNC.
“There was nothing out of the ordinary with the order,” he says. “They did their due diligence and decided to purchase the 250 Tasers. The info that we would have provided them is all on the Web site and supports the testing of the product,” he says.
However, Holran acknowledges that the police training videos are not actually available for public viewing. “The full eight-hour course is not available,” he says. “It provides tactics and training we do not want out to the general public for safety reasons.”
Holran insists that Taser International and its training videos play no role in determining an agency’s use-of-force guidelines for Tasers. “What we provide in our training courses and in the general instructions is how it is used,” he says. “Whatever the agency’s policies are would determine how you take someone into arrest,” he says. “That is not what Taser dictates.”
Yet Taser does show what the company considers “typical scenarios” in its training materials. Recent police academy graduate Justin Richards has seen the most recent videos during his training last semester at the Criminal Justice Law Enforcement Center in St. Paul. Gone are the machete-wielding psychos, and in their place are people throwing around smart talk and attitude.
“We watched videos where people were getting Tased,” Richards says. “Three-hundred-pound guys being ornery and combative, and once they get Tased they are done. They put their hands behind their back and are ready to go.”
As part of his training, he chose to be Tased. “If you are going to use it on people, I think you should experience it for yourself,” he says. The shock, Richards says, hurt like hell.
“It hurts bad,” he says. “I have a pretty high pain tolerance. I’ve had torn ACLs and broken bones. As soon as it hits you, your muscles lock up. You think 100 percent clearly though everything, which is both good and bad.”
Richards says he hasn’t had to use a Taser at his new job in Anoka County, but he thinks it’s an important tool for officers to carry. “It saves lives,” he says. “In certain situations, basically you are going to be Tased or get shot.”
A company claim of ‘thousands of lives’ saved
Despite Taser International’s loss in court this week and the fact that Amnesty International says the Taser has contributed to more than 350 deaths in the United States and Canada, the company continues to insist its products save lives. The company’s tag line is “Protect Life,” turning the axiom of “self-protection” into a touchy-feely notion of protecting all.
“The way it saves lives,” Holran says, “is that it reduces the escalation of force. If someone takes a fighting stance or someone presents resistance, officers need to take the next step. If you are in that situation where that policy deems it can be used, if it used correctly and with good training, it ends the conflict immediately. And that saves lives.”
The company’s press kit says that “Taser devices have saved thousands of lives and have greatly reduced the injuries that officers and suspects would typically encounter when using hands-on techniques, fighting, punching, kicking and swing batons to stop suspects from hurting themselves, the public or other officers.
Taser doesn’t cite any study in its press kit that can back up its “thousands of lives” claim. Instead, the company attaches news stories where Tasers were used on people in danger of harming themselves. In one case, the company notes, a Taser was used to subdue a suicidal man who slashed his wrists with a razor and shouted at police to shoot him.
In fact, there is not a single independent study that provides conclusive evidence that Taser saves lives of officers or suspects. A 1999 study on police use of force released by the National Institute of Justice suggests Tasers have had little more than perceived effect in reducing officer and suspect injuries. The study of 26 agencies found that in a period spanning 1995 and 1996, prior to Taser’s widespread use by police departments, that about 10 percent of officers using force suffered injury, with less than 1 percent being serious. About 38 percent of the subjects were injured as the result of police use of force, including approximately 1.5 percent with major injuries.
In a Seattle Police Department study in 2002, one year after implementing the M26 Taser, 32 percent of subjects suffered injuries. Thirteen percent of those injuries occurred subsequent to Taser deployment, often from falling to the ground. And officers suffered injuries 18 percent of the time.
Since the beginning of this year, Taser use has contributed to 34 deaths. Four have occurred in June. And two have occurred in the Twin Cities.
Seven Coloradans have reportedly died as a result of Taser shocks.
Next: Who gets Tased? A look at the victims and what one police psychologist calls a “Taser monopoly.”