Taser Aftershock!

Turns out much-maligned stun guns are a good thing overall

The class takes an easy multiple-choice test (everyone passes), after which it goes outdoors, where another instructor dons a protective outfit and plays the role of a bad guy.

Toting their Tasers, a few rookie officers get to role-play by loudly threatening to Tase the faux suspect who's holding a baseball bat in a menacing way. When the guy doesn't comply, the officers pretend to zap him.

Their target immediately drops the bat and falls backward, as the rookies swoop in and place him under arrest.

Nicholas Ivins
Phoenix police Officer Kevin Sakalas is a big fan of stun guns.
Laura Segall
Phoenix police Officer Kevin Sakalas is a big fan of stun guns.

"Cool," another rookie taking the class says.

"Dude, it's not going to be that easy out there," his young colleague replies.

The Phoenix Police Department was the first big-city agency to fully embrace the Taser, whose origin can be traced to former NASA scientist Jack Cover, who worked on Apollo moon-landing mission.

In the early 1970s, Cover started working on a stun gun in his Tucson garage. He named his device after Tom Swift, the fictional young inventor who was a hero of early-20th-century adventure novels (Taser stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle).

Like many inventions, this one needed years of refinement before it was ready for mass production.

Cover's original Taser looked like a large flashlight and used gunpowder to shoot the two wires. The product foundered for years, even after two entrepreneurial young brothers, Tom and Rick Smith, and their father, Phil, bought the rights to the product in the early 1990s.

The brothers started what became known as Taser International, inspired (according to company lore) by the road-rage murders in Scottsdale of two of Rick Smith's former high school buddies.

One huge technical hurdle was altering the firing mechanism so that the stun gun could use a compressed air cartridge instead of gunpowder, which would take the device out of the lethal-weapon category.

Once they figured that out, the firm needed to ensure that the electrified probes would fire accurately, up to a distance of 21 feet. The weapon needed to work from a good distance from suspects for the company to lure law enforcement into their potentially lucrative fold.

Other flaws remained. In one reported account, Taser International CEO Rick Smith fired his stun gun at a volunteer during a 1995 sales demonstration at a police academy. Far from stopping him, the weapon didn't even slow down the volunteer much. He continued to move forward after being shocked and was said to have placed Smith in a chokehold.

Taser International continued to work the kinks out of its promising product. In the late 1990s, the company finally felt poised to go forward with its product in a big way. It began to heavily market the weapon to law enforcement agencies, after having focused on private citizens for years.

Tasers don't require licenses in the 43 states that allow them, which is a continued source of frustration for the human-rights groups that insist the stun guns ought to be closely regulated.

"While the Taser stun gun has the potential to save lives," a 2005 report by the northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union concluded, "it poses a serious health risk as long as it remains largely unregulated."

In the past decade, the company claims it has sold about 225,000 stun guns to 11,000 police agencies, and another 125,000 units to civilians. (The firm's newest model, the C2, debuted in January at a trade show in Las Vegas. Less powerful and smaller than the police version, the C2's electric probes still can reach up to 15 feet from a target and are built to shock someone for 30 seconds straight. They come in several colors, including "shocking" pink, and retail for about $350.)

For Phoenix police, Taser use started in 1999 when the department purchased a few for use on a trial basis. At first, the department allowed only its tactical units, including its SWAT team, to carry stun guns. Preliminary results seemed positive, and in early 2002, the agency issued one Taser to each patrol squad.

That year, the Phoenix department experienced its first "Taser-related" death.

When police responded to a domestic-violence call at a residence near 80th Avenue and Thomas Road, a 39-year-old man already had cut himself with glass from a shattered vase and was out of control.

In an effort to corral the man, the cops doused him with pepper spray, hit him three times with a flashlight, and punched him seven times in the head. Finally, they zapped him with Taser probes for two five-second cycles, and took him into custody.

The man stopped breathing as paramedics were treating him, and he later died. The Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office listed the cause of death as methamphetamine intoxication, with heart disease as a contributing factor. It didn't mention the Taser.

In early 2003, the Phoenix department decided to issue Tasers to every patrol officer on the force. The agency bought 1,175 Tasers for $659,000, which definitely widened smiles inside Taser International. Phoenix officers that year deployed their new stun guns 440 times, according to department statistics, compared with just 176 uses in 2002.

"Before we went to Taser, we'd shot a lot of people who threatened us with rocks and other makeshift weapons," Lieutenant Kelly says. "That's one of the reasons we went to Taser."

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good story! hot cop! :) protect me any day!

Frank Pinelander
Frank Pinelander

It appears the only reason a variety of "civil-rights groups" don't like the Taser is it takes money out of their pockets by minimizing "wrongful death" lawsuits.

Fred Luria
Fred Luria

Congratulations on a really great job on this story. As the brother of a police officer, I know what goes on out there and how many times that guns would be the right call over anything else. Tasers aren't perfect by any means as the story says, but they sure as hell are better than getting a bullet in the chest, or even better than getting the crap beat out of you because you won't stop. Everyone who trashes Taser should read this. You can use this as a letter or not, I just wanted to thank you.

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