Taser Aftershock!

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

By 2004, Taser International's sales and the price of its stock were mushrooming.

But trouble was brewing, partly because of the company's insistence in its early training manuals and in publicity material that its product was safe under all circumstances.

These days, it's hard to imagine how anyone (except, perhaps, a Taser International stockholder) could believe that getting nailed by 50,000-volt bursts would not occasionally spell trouble. In hindsight, says Kelly, police should have taken Taser International's early training protocol with a grain of salt.

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.

"They run a business, not a police agency," says Kelly, who remains favorably disposed toward stun guns.

Taser International still refers in publicity materials to a 54 percent decrease in the number of suspects shot by Phoenix cops in 2003 (when the agency armed all its street officers with the device) from the previous year. That was true, and it sounded like a cause-and-effect — more Taser use, fewer deaths.

But the company never mentions that officer-related shootings in Phoenix actually increased to 20 in 2004, with 14 fatalities, and have hovered around that number since, no matter how many people have been Tased in a given year.

Lieutenant Kelly explains the apparent anomaly: "People with guns who are ready to commit violence have become much more prevalent, which probably explains the spike in police shootings despite the presence of Tasers. Our philosophy is that it's not wise to try to face down an armed suspect with a Taser. The gun is likely to win."

But Taser International long has tried to position its product as a true alternative to deadly force, not just as a way to stop suspects who just won't obey the cops and are posing a potential danger.

"Think of it," Taser's Rick Smith said a few years ago. "With 35,000 deaths a year from bullet wounds in the U.S., the goal in many instances is not to kill, but to avoid danger and death. By incapacitating a hostile or uncontrollable person, the goal can be achieved by using Tasers, and it can be done more effectively and efficiently than other methods, certainly at lower risk than with guns."

Despite glowing early field reviews about the Taser, supervisors inside the Phoenix department expressed qualms over the injuries that a handful of its officers suffered while getting shocked during training. All but a few of the injuries were slight, such as sprained fingers and bruised shoulders sustained during falls.

But one officer needed back surgery after injuring his spinal discs in a fall during training, and another was out of work for weeks after getting Tased.

In spring 2003, Chief Jack Harris ended the practice of allowing officers to be voluntarily Tased while learning how to use the stun gun.

(Cops injured during Taser training nationwide have filed more than 25 lawsuits against the company since 2000. Most of the suits involve officers who claim that the firm's manuals contained substandard warnings about what the weapon can do to people.)

In 2004, a spate of investigative reports of Tasers appeared in the news media, including a lengthy series in the Arizona Republic. The reports were largely responsible for a temporary end to Taser International's financial joy ride.

Some accounts revealed how police officers in Phoenix and around the country were making money from the proliferation of stun-gun sales to law enforcement. Come to find out, Taser International had lured some cops with stock options and other incentives, in return for their serving as pitchmen to prospective customers, including city councils and police departments.

Reports also focused on Taser International's claims of unilateral safety and on the firm's hardball approach to sales tactics and public relations.

Amid all this, Amnesty International pronounced that police were using the Taser as an instrument of torture, and urged that it be considered a lethal weapon. Then, in January 2005, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission announced it was informally investigating whether Taser International had been grossly exaggerating the safety of its product.

After a sevenfold rise in the price of Taser International shares in 2004, the stock lost almost 90 percent of its value in 2005. The SEC investigation later became formal and expanded to include alleged manipulation of Taser stock by outsiders.

Many concerned police departments put their Taser orders on hold, and others reconsidered their officers' use of the device.

In an SEC filing in March 2005, Taser International for the first time issued a warning about its product: "Our products are often used in aggressive confrontations that may result in serious, permanent bodily injury or death to those involved. Our products may cause or be associated with these injuries."

The company posted losses in fiscal 2005.

By then, the news media were snooping around the tumbling firm like onlookers at a crime scene, waiting for the ultimate shoe to drop. But it didn't.

In December 2005, a Maricopa County jury returned a pro-Taser verdict after a pivotal four-week trial in a personal-injury case filed by former sheriff's Deputy Samuel Powers. The lawsuit had alleged that Taser International was responsible for Powers' broken back during a 2002 training exercise.

Powers told jurors that he never would've agreed to be shocked if Taser International had issued warnings about potential dangers. The company claimed that the ex-deputy had osteoporosis and had experienced back problems.

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My Voice Nation Help

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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