Shocking Accusations

Is Scottsdale weapons manufacturer Taser International saving lives or supplying tools for torturers?

[Tom Swift] suddenly stopped, and reached around for his electric rifle, which he was carrying at his back.

"What is it?" asked Ned in a whisper.

"I don't know, but it's some big animal there in the bushes," was Tom's low-voiced answer. "I'm ready for it."

--Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders

The muscular inmate is pacing his cell. Back and forth, back and forth, swearing and spitting and screaming. He bounces off the concrete walls on a methamphetamine high, daring the guards to come in and get him. He is about to get what he's asking for.

The cell door jolts open.

A guard fires a black, hand-held weapon.

Pop!

Not a gunpowder Bang!, but an air-powered Pop!, and a pair of metal talons launches out of the Taser and into the inmate's chest.

The inmate's hands spastically jerk across his body. He collapses stiffly to the floor.

His voice, full of chest-thrusting bravado just seconds before, is high-pitched and pitiful, the result of a 50,000-volt attitude adjustment.

"It burns! It burns!" he cries.

The jail cell scene then freezes. And is mouse-clicked away.

The drama was recorded by a Chandler jail surveillance camera and sent to Rick Smith, CEO of Scottsdale-based Taser International. The clip is one of several in Smith's collection of real-life examples of his product in the field.

"We believe this is not just the next generation in non-lethal technology, but the next generation in weapons technology as a whole," Smith says.

At first, Smith, 31, seems to be the ideal casting choice for the Corporate Villain.

He is a former football jock and Harvard fraternity president who founded a weapons company with his trust fund. A confident salesman with dark, James Bondian good looks who unabashedly uses business-seminar vocabulary such as "pro-active," "action items" and "interface." He is the Taser manufacturer who freely admits he's battling one of the world's most renowned humanitarian organizations -- Amnesty International.

Except Smith isn't so easily typecast.

In 1991, Smith was studying post-graduate international finance in Belgium when two of his friends from Chaparral High were gunned down in a senseless road rage incident outside Gainey Ranch.

The tragedy prompted Smith to reconsider his assumption that American violence wasn't as bad as his European friends so often claimed. Smith says he started researching why guns were so readily available, and whether there were viable alternatives to resolving conflict with deadly bullets.

During his research into non-lethal weapons, Smith was most impressed with the Taser, a device that fires two electrode darts trailed by a wire. The darts lodge in a subject's clothing or skin and conduct a low-amperage/high-voltage pulsed-DC electricity charge that incapacitates the person instantly. Instantly. Whereas a gunshot wound, even if the bullet penetrates the heart, allows a person to continue functioning for several seconds, enough time for even a mortally wounded person to return fire.

The Taser, he thought, was a device with major lifesaving -- and profit-making -- potential.

Smith figured he could re-engineer the weapon to make it more effective. He located the patent holder and, in 1993, spent $25,000 to buy the Taser manufacturing rights and to launch his company.

Today his company's high-powered M26 Taser is winning rave reviews from once-skeptical law enforcement officers. The M26, at a cost of about $400, has a firing range of 21 feet, a built-in laser-sighting, an electrical discharge of 50,000 volts and a slimmed-down design so that it resembles a Glock 9 mm.

Most remarkably, Smith has added two features that can only be described as downright socially responsible.

First, every time the trigger is pulled, the M26 discharges dots of confetti marked with a tiny serial number. The dots can determine which officer fired a weapon, or help trace a purchase if the Taser is used in the commission of a crime.

Second, the weapon has a microchip that records the date and time of every discharge, information that can be extracted only by the manufacturer. Phoenix police sent a letter to Taser International thanking the company for this feature, saying it vindicated an officer who had been falsely accused of repeatedly electroshocking a suspect.

Smith points out that no other conventional weapon includes such self-imposed tracking technology.

"We tell officers in training, 'Every time this trigger is pulled, you better damn well be able to explain where you were, what you were doing and why it was pulled,'" Smith says.

Taser International claims its weapons are now used in more than 800 U.S. law enforcement and corrections agencies -- including 34 in Arizona. About 15 departments nationwide have full deployment, a Taser for every officer.

Phoenix police have about 60 Tasers distributed among 2,671 officers. The weapon is primarily used by members of the Special Assignments Unit (a SWAT-team equivalent), and the Phoenix city council has recently authorized the purchase of an additional 173 Tasers.

"We've had some failures, but they've been effective in most of the incidents in which they have been used," says Phoenix police spokesperson Randy Force, who notes the Taser is fired when "somebody needs to be forcibly subdued but where deadly force would not be necessary."

So the weapon is an effective tool, a device that gives officers and citizens more of a sliding scale of defense for reality's sliding scale of conflict. Stunning the bad guys, just like in Star Trek, with minimal-to-zero biological damage.

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