By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
For one young Phoenix police officer, the Taser X26 he was carrying on April 23, 2006, was a godsend both for him and the man who said he wanted to die.
Kevin Sakalas already was a fan of stun guns, of which Taser International is, by far, the world's largest manufacturer. About a year earlier, Sakalas had taken extra training on his own at the company's headquarters in Scottsdale "because I thought it would help me be a better police officer."
He had allowed himself to be Tased there so that he could experience what it felt like, something his department hasn't permitted during training sessions since 2003.
"No fun," the officer says of being shocked for a few seconds in the controlled setting. "But I got the picture."
Sakalas had stopped to use a restroom at a convenience store at West 44th Avenue and Indian School Road while on patrol around dawn that April morning. As he stepped into the store, the cop saw a man near the cold-drink section holding a razor blade he'd taken out of a box cutter.
Speaking Spanish, the 34-year-old man told a store employee he wanted Sakalas to shoot him. The officer called immediately for backup on his portable radio.
"He's flashing the razor blade, and he's slowly moving toward me," Sakalas says about the man, who wasn't large but was highly agitated. "I'm, 'Oh, great.' But I'm not going to shoot this guy. I tell him in Spanish to drop the blade and get to his knees. He's not listening. I tell the employees to exit the store for their own safety."
The man put the blade to his own throat, saying in broken English, "I don't want life."
Before Taser, Sakalas probably would have unholstered his gun and, if the man continued to edge toward him with the knife, he would have shot him.
But now that carrying a Taser has become standard for cops in about 11,000 agencies nationwide, police procedures have changed.
The stun gun was designed for hairy situations like this one.
So what happened was: Sakalas reached for his Taser instead of his service revolver, just as two other cops entered the store as backup.
"I didn't have my nightstick with me," the officer says, "and using pepper-spray in that closed environment wasn't appropriate. I didn't know the guy's intentions, but his shirt was untucked, and he was lunging toward me, six or seven feet away. We're taught at the academy that one of the worst things you can face is someone with a knife. Going 'hands on' was the last thing I wanted to do at that moment."
Sakalas pointed his Taser at the man's chest but decided he wouldn't pull the trigger until his target moved the blade away from his neck.
As soon as the officer saw his opening, he pulled the trigger once and released it.
Two electrified probes (they look like straightened fish hooks) shot out of the stun gun attached to stainless-steel wires that stay connected to the weapon. The probes are designed to nail their targets up to a distance of 21 feet.
Volumes of research show that though the electrical charge will continue as long as the trigger is depressed, one five-second cycle (a single trigger pull and release) from the battery-powered device is enough to cause temporary loss of muscle control.
The top probe is designed to shoot straight while the lower probe shoots downward at an eight-degree trajectory. If both darts hook into a target's skin or clothing, the shock and its aftermath are supposed to make the suspect unable to resist or fight for several seconds.
In this instance, the probes from Kevin Sakalas' Taser penetrated the man's clothes but failed to incapacitate the guy long enough for the cops to take him into custody.
One of the backup officers then fired his Taser at the man's chest.
The man crumpled to the floor as police rushed in and cuffed him.
Though the man seemed fine within in a minute or so, the cops called in Phoenix Fire Department paramedics to examine him at the store. Then, instead of taking the man to jail, authorities took him to a county psychiatric facility for observation.
No charges would be filed in the case.
Officer Sakalas, by the way, finally got to use the restroom.
"The Taser gives us something we didn't have before," he says. "I'm not saying it's 100 percent effective or that it's magic. You do have human or mechanical failures on occasion. But it's a very good tool to have at your disposal."
Every day in Phoenix, police officers face situations that have the potential of escalating into violence.
There are domestic-dispute calls and confrontations with tweakers and drunks too messed up to consider the ramifications of mixing it up with uniformed cops.
The cops also contend with people who are suicidal, seriously mentally ill, or both.
They defuse most situations without having to draw their weapons, which include service revolvers, nightsticks, pepper spray and, of course, Taser stun guns.
Phoenix police in 2006 deployed their Tasers about once every three days on average either by firing the probes or by pushing the device against a suspect's body like a cattle prod and shocking a suspect in an effort to gain compliance.
Though there continue to be notable exceptions, police officers these days prefer the least amount of physical contact possible with citizens. That's a change from earlier generations, when beat cops commonly used fists and nightsticks as tools of compliance.
Some of the reasons are obvious: Cops don't fancy getting sued for using excessive force, getting injured in a brawl with a bad guy, or facing an internal-affairs investigation for being too rough on a suspect.
What also has changed: Law enforcement has other less-lethal weapons at its command, most prominently the Taser.
Police generally love the thing. Cops consider it a big plus to have another option at their command something between ordering a suspect to put down a knife or rock and . . . kaboom.
Something worthy of mention in an assessment of Taser use is that the Phoenix department, like most other big-city forces in America, requires its officers to shoot to kill. In other words, cops are trained to fire their guns only when killing a suspect is warranted. It's not like it is in the movies, where police shoot weapons out of suspects' hands or purposely wing them.
So, without Taser, it makes sense to say, an untold number of citizens here and elsewhere would have lost their lives in clashes with the police.
But the Taser remains a controversial topic in the news media, among human-rights organizations, and with plaintiffs in civil cases, as questions about its safety continue to nag the Scottsdale firm that manufactures it.
In an attempt to assess whether stun guns are the demon they've been made out to be or are a positive force both for police and the suspects they must collar, New Times conducted a months-long analysis of the use of Tasers by Phoenix cops. The investigation determined that the weapons have proved far more positive than negative, both to citizens and to law enforcement.
Bottom line: When used properly, the Taser generally does what it's supposed to do. And that is, according to Taser International's training manual: "Incapacitate dangerous, combative, or high-risk subjects who pose a risk to law enforcement officers, innocent citizens, or themselves in a manner that is generally recognized as a safer alternative to other uses of force."
Clearly, many people have avoided physical injury or death because Tasers stopped them before dicey situations became worse.
Precisely how many lives have been saved and how many injuries have been averted is impossible to say, but, as Phoenix police training Officer Kevin Johnson told a class during a Taser orientation session last month, "Let's put it this way. A lot of people are walking around out there who wouldn't be if not for Tasers."
Phoenix police Lieutenant Dave Kelly, who heads the department's advanced-training unit adds, "I've seen many, many cases where a subject would have gotten shot pre-Taser, and legitimately so."
The evidence also reveals that, despite a population growth in Phoenix of about 400,000 people since the start of 2003 (the year that the Phoenix department gave each of its patrol officers Tasers for the first time), the numbers of injuries sustained by officers and suspects have decreased markedly.
In 2002, according to department statistics, 42 Phoenix cops were injured in clashes with citizens, compared with just 35 in 2006.
Phoenix statistics also show that suspect injuries decreased 67 percent in 2004 from two years earlier, a huge decline.
"We honestly give the Taser a lot of credit for the reduction in injuries," Kelly says.
It's interesting to note that many more Phoenix officers were assaulted with firearms in 2006 than in 2002 61 last year compared with 40 in '02.
Phoenix doesn't track how many suicides may have been averted because of Tasers, but other agencies do. The Columbus Police Department in Ohio documented 12 incidents in 2005 during which people threatening to kill themselves were subdued after getting Tased. The population of Columbus is about 750,000, which makes it roughly half the size of Phoenix.
How many would-be Columbus suicide victims had weapons and how many were trying to force police to kill them (known to authorities as "suicide-by-cop") is uncertain.
For this story, New Times analyzed the 42 police reports generated in April 2006, after Phoenix officers had used Tasers on someone. (See "The Taser: Almost Never a Lethal Weapon.") Officer Sakalas' situation inside the west-side convenience store was one of those cases. Most of the incidents happened after complaints of domestic violence, reports of suspicious people, and while the police were on routine patrol.
No one died or was seriously injured that month, though one cop's ribs were broken as he tried to subdue a doped-up driver who had intentionally rear-ended another car in north Phoenix in a bizarre suicide attempt.
Officers fired their Tasers in 26 of the 42 sample cases and used the weapon as kind of an electrified cattle-prod (police call it "drive-stunning" a suspect) on 18 occasions. The reason for the funny arithmetic is that two people were Tased with probes and were prodded with the device.
Many of those Tased in April 2006 faced felony charges, and some were later sentenced to prison. Others were ordered into the county's mental-health system.
But what didn't turn up in the Phoenix stats for that or any other month was how often people comply with the cops just because of the threat of being shocked. That number is extraordinary, according to several cops interviewed for this article.
"Almost as soon as we went to Taser, we started to find that, duh, people just don't like the idea of being shocked," Lieutenant Kelly says, "and that many were giving up without a fight. It was fairly dramatic."
One instance occurred in March 2005, when Officer Bobby Madeira, a transplanted East Coast native on patrol in south Phoenix, came upon a young man who fit the description of a suspect in the brutal robbery-murder of a Tempe bartender ("The Case of the Fatal Femme," March 9, 2006).
Then 17, Richard Enos fled when Madeira ordered him to stop. Enos was about to scale a wall and escape into the neighborhood, when Madeira yelled, "Stop right now or you're gonna get Tased!"
Enos surrendered on the spot.
At the downtown police station a few hours later, Officer Madeira watched on closed-circuit television as Enos confessed to having a role in the grisly crime.
The cop marveled at what Enos had told him after surrendering. "He said, 'No way I'm gonna get Tased, man.' I told him he'd done the right thing."
Certainly, though, as Officer Sakalas has suggested, neither the stun gun nor its users are infallible. The Taser holds serious potential for abuse, and cops in Phoenix and elsewhere have made bad decisions about when, why, and how they've used the weapon.
(In part two of this series, "Death by Electrocutioner," New Times examines one regrettable example, the death of 24-year-old Keith Graff, shocked nonstop by a Phoenix cop for 84 seconds in May 2005.)
Taser horror stories include a 71-year-old legally blind, mentally ill woman shocked five times by police in Portland, Oregon. Things had gone awry when she declined to clean her messy yard. (She later settled a lawsuit against the city for $145,000).
There have been cases of elementary-age schoolchildren getting Tased for causing trouble in class. A woman eight months pregnant was Tased in Seattle after she refused to sign a traffic ticket and walked away from a cop, supposedly to use a restroom. A 56-year-old wheelchair-bound woman died in Florida after a Tasing. A combative inmate in a South Carolina jail died in July 2005 after he was shocked for almost three minutes.
Defining the parameters of Taser use is still a work in progress inside most police agencies. In the early days of Tasers (all of about five years ago in Phoenix), it seemed as if anybody could look at a Phoenix cop sideways and get zapped. Those days seem to be over as the department has tightened its policies on the use of the weapons.
For example, the previous Phoenix policy allowed officers to Tase just about anyone who wasn't "immediately" complying with an officer's commands. That included people engaging in what law enforcement calls "defensive resistance," which is when a suspect tries to prevent a cop from gaining control by pulling away or running away without trying to hurt the officer.
Now, according to the new policy, "The Taser can only be used in situations where the subject involved is aggressive toward the officer or a third party" to the point where the cop or the third party feels that he or she is about to get hurt or if the subject is trying to hurt himself.
The amended Phoenix policy also reiterated something that had been common practice (and common sense) for Phoenix officers since Tasers fully came on board in 2003. Officers are not allowed to use the Taser on pregnant women, the elderly, and the very young, or on handcuffed prisoners, "unless [police] can articulate that other reasonable force options [were] tried and were unlikely to succeed."
But even before the new policy became effective a few weeks ago, Phoenix officers were using Tasers less, down from 449 uses in 2004 to 367 last year.
Lieutenant Kelly says the reasons for the reduction are many. He says cops, like anyone else, tend to fall in love with new gadgets, and the heavy early Taser use by Phoenix's officers may have been a reflection of that.
The Phoenix department has disciplined only a handful of officers for misusing the Taser, and none has gotten more than a written reprimand, a step below suspension.
One Phoenix officer pointed his Taser at a fellow cop in 2005 during a morning briefing at the Cactus Park precinct, which the second officer didn't appreciate. Another cop drive-stunned a suspect in the passenger seat of a stolen car, which was against regulations. Yet another officer was written up for Tasing bicycle rider who wouldn't stop for questioning.
Those incidents seem benign when contrasted with the fatal, 84-second shocking of Keith Graff. But the Phoenix department determined that Officer Charles Anderson's Tasing of Graff was "in policy" partly because the department did not (and still doesn't) specify how many times and for how long a subject may be shocked.
But Phoenix's new policy does say that officers are to deploy the Taser for one five-second cycle, then "evaluate the subject's response and, when feasible, allow the arrest team to control the subject. Subsequent application can be made if control over the subject is not achieved."
In other words, Phoenix officers apparently aren't allowed to Tase someone for 84 seconds straight anymore.
The basic concern of Taser naysayers always has been the product's safety.
"How many deaths related to these devices must occur before we have concrete, impartial information that accurately describes the potential dangers of use?" asked Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, in a January statement. "In the hands of police officers, Tasers have been a questionable weapon, at best. More than 220 people in the United States have died after being shocked with Tasers."
But coroners around the nation have called Tasers a factor in a subject's death in about only a dozen of the 220 cases.
New Times also examined 14 cases in Maricopa County in which a person died after being Tased and found a much more complex scenario than the murderous one suggested by Larry Cox and others.
In each of those cases, the victim was under the influence of illegal drugs when he died, almost always methamphetamine. Several also had health problems, including damaged hearts, obesity, and serious mental illness. Almost all seemed out of control in the moments before they slipped into unconsciousness and later died.
Taser International estimates that more than 200,000 people have been shocked by its stun guns in the past decade. Some of them have been Tased voluntarily during training sessions, and thousands more have been stunned in real-life situations.
A Phoenix man interviewed for this story says he's thankful that Tasers existed three years ago when he was suicidal. He says he knows Phoenix police could have and maybe should have shot him on a summer night in 2004.
"I was an idiot," says the 27-year-old father of two young girls who requested anonymity now that he says he has turned his life around. "My girlfriend wouldn't let me see my kids, and I went off. Didn't hit nobody, but I broke some stuff at her place, and someone called the police."
He says he was tweaking when cops showed up at a west Phoenix apartment complex and ordered him to come outside. He says he stepped into a foyer and stuck his hand beneath his shirt, as if he was reaching for a weapon.
"Didn't care no more," he says.
Records show he was unarmed.
Then he saw the first of two officers pull out Tasers.
"I think I said I was going to kill them, which was bullshit. Then I was, 'Shit, they're not going to kill me, they're gonna fry my ass,'" he says. "Next thing I knew, I was down on the ground, and they were cuffing me. My elbow hurt for a long time afterward. But I wasn't dead, and I could have been."
The charges against the man were reduced to misdemeanors after he successfully completed probation.
It's a beautiful spring day and about 25 Phoenix police officers are sitting in a classroom ready to undergo a daylong training session on the use of Taser stun guns.
Many of the officers are recent recruits, while others are veterans getting re-certified in how to deploy the device.
The first instructor, Officer Michael Bosworth, stands in the classroom in a Red Sox cap and starts with a verbal bang.
"We have an obligation and duty to stop someone who's going to hurt himself or someone else," the native Bostonian says. "How are we gonna stop them? Are we going to shoot everyone? Obviously not. This is where Taser can come in handy."
Bosworth shows a series of wild videos of cops deploying Tasers.
"A Taser is not a magic bullet," he says, "though it has saved thousands of lives around the country. It's an electrical device, and it doesn't work 100 percent of the time. Sometimes, a subject will hop back up after the five seconds, like a little puppy dog ready for more. You need contingency plans. And remember, it's not a substitute for lethal force! You want to totally avoid using a Taser on a subject with a gun."
Bosworth shows a tape of a suspect in a Chandler jail cell who quickly re-energizes and fights like crazy a few seconds after getting hit with a five-second Taser cycle. It takes eight officers to finally subdue the man.
"For some people, it's the worst pain they've ever felt, a life-changing experience," Bosworth tells the class. "Not for that guy. Here's something else to remember: Don't apply extra cycles because you're pissed off at someone or you're having fun. Giving unnecessary additional cycles is not in policy, so don't do it."
Bosworth gives the floor to Officer Kevin Johnson.
"Ride for five," Johnson tells the class, meaning that "everyone gets a full five-second [Taser] cycle unless circumstances dictate otherwise."
Johnson reminds the class that 20 to 40 bits of brightly colored confetti will emit from a Taser during each use, with the weapon's serial number printed on each tiny piece. The time, date and duration of the previous 1,500 firings also remain on a computer inside the stun gun.
"Every time you shot the dog with it or played around with it with your friends, your supervisor is going to know about it," Johnson says. "Remember that."
The officer spends time on the department's recent use-of-Taser policy changes, concluding that "you definitely can Tase if you believe you are going to be harmed, but you had better be able to articulate that at a later date."
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
It marked the first such lawsuit against Taser International that made it to trial, and the outcome was the start of a comeback for the beleaguered company.
In May 2006, the SEC said it wouldn't be taking any action against Taser International.
The company has continued to get good news inside the nation's courtrooms.
It hasn't lost outright any of the 45 completed product-liability, excessive-use-of-force, and wrongful-death suits filed against it since 2000 (many more cases are pending).
"It's important to point out that plaintiffs have not been able to prove [in court] that the Taser device was defective or was the cause of any suspect injury or death," company vice president and general counsel Doug Klint told shareholders at an April 25 meeting.
Taser International has quietly settled a few cases in recent years. But the firm has paid much more in legal fees about $8 million since 2004, according to its own accounts than the relatively insignificant sum of about $200,000 it has paid to plaintiffs.
It also should be noted that cities and their police departments have doled out healthy sums to plaintiffs in a few Taser-involved cases.
In 2005, Mesa agreed to pay Glendale resident Bruce Bellemore $2.2 million, after a city police officer shocked him out of a citrus tree in February 2004. Bellemore became a quadriplegic after the 10-foot fall. Legally speaking, it didn't matter that he was fleeing four guard dogs after allegedly committing a house burglary with another man when the police caught up to him in the tree.
Taser International seems to have weathered these storms. First-quarter revenues this year were a record $15.3 million, a 10 percent increase over the same period last year.
This month, shares in Taser International rose more than 9 percent after a Wall Street analyst said it may receive up to $300 million in orders from France after the recent election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, a strong proponent of the stun guns.
But, as seems inevitable in the saga of this mercurial company, a new dark cloud is on the horizon.
On June 4, the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice announced it is "reviewing" the use of Tasers by the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Florida. The investigation is a first nationwide and is expected to take months. Deputies in that jurisdiction have shocked more than 2,000 people since 2000, according to accounts published in the Orlando Sentinel.
Four people on Amnesty International's oft-cited but debatable list are said to have died after Tasings in that central Florida county.
If Jesse Colter III had survived his altercation with Phoenix police, the shock from the Taser that stopped him may have been applauded as his savior.
But the 31-year-old Phoenix man died, and his demise has been added to the unofficial list of "Taser-related" fatalities that are the subject of continuing nationwide debate.
The scenario in which he was killed began when a woman called 911 at 4:34 a.m. on April 24, 2005, about a ruckus that possibly involved a gun at an apartment building near 25th Avenue and Ocotillo Road. Officers Wilson Manning and Scott Pavese arrived at the scene three minutes after the call.
In the police report he filed, Pavese said he'd seen a nude man hanging out of a broken third-floor window screaming that someone was shooting at him. At that point Jesse Colter III fell or jumped, landing on the hood of a Chevrolet Blazer below.
The officers approached Colter, who jumped up and sprinted west on Ocotillo toward 27th Avenue. The cops followed him, as they called in another unit.
Colter ran into a parking lot near 27th Avenue and found himself cornered next to an eight-foot wall. Muscular at 6-foot-3, shrieking and bleeding badly, Colter would have been a handful for a squad of cops.
This was a perfect situation for deployment of a Taser, as everyone around Colter, not to mention Colter himself, was in harm's way.
Pavese said he and his partner pulled out their stun guns as Colter assumed a fighting stance. Pavese fired but missed his moving target. Manning also fired his Taser, but only one of the two prongs stuck in Colter's back and had no apparent effect.
Then, Officer Jerome Paprocki arrived.
"Officers were trying to get near [Colter]," he told a detective later that morning. "He was making lunging moves toward them. He was obviously out of his wits [based on] his nature of actions and movements. They were just telling him to be still. Just stop moving around. I was waiting as long as I possibly could to see if he was going to comply. He was making erratic movements toward the officers."
Paprocki shot his Taser into Colter's chest from 12 to 15 feet away. Both probes hooked into Colter's body as the officer kept the electrical charge alive for five seconds.
Colter coiled up and dropped forward onto the ground.
The cops rushed in, but Colter kept his left arm locked under his chest in an apparent effort to keep from being handcuffed. It took cops more than a minute to subdue him.
Phoenix firefighters arrived about two minutes after police arrested Colter. But a routine examination of the bloody, naked man by paramedics took on a sudden urgency when Colter slipped into unconsciousness.
They rushed him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:21 a.m., 47 minutes after the 911 call from the apartment complex.
Investigators back at the apartment complex learned that Colter, a chronic drug user who'd served time in prison on a drug conviction, had been smoking a "sherm" just before crashing through the third-story window. A sherm is a cigarette laced with PCP, which can induce delusions of invulnerability and superhuman strength.
Colter's autopsy revealed that, in addition to ingesting a large amount of PCP and Ecstasy, he had a badly damaged and enlarged heart. An assistant medical examiner ruled that the death was caused by "excited delirium, PCP toxicity" and a diseased heart.
(Excited delirium is a controversial diagnosis yet to be officially recognized by professional medical associations. Civil-liberties groups and plaintiffs' attorneys are among those who insist that medical examiners and law enforcement use the term to cover up police abuses. But it's very real to doctors and police who've seen its effects firsthand. To the cops who Tased Jesse Colter, he'd been a textbook example of the phenomenon.)
Homicide Detective Alex Femenia headed the investigation into the circumstances of Colter's death. He learned that the former high school football player had undergone open-heart surgery about six months before his demise.
Femenia says, "Blaming the Taser for this [would be] like blaming a car manufacturer for a pedestrian's death when he crosses the street in the dark on a green light.
What happened in the Colter case, the detective says, was: "We had a guy on drugs with a bad ticker who freaked out and put himself in a bad spot. I wonder what would have happened out there if that Taser hadn't stopped him."
Part two: "Death by Electrocutioner"
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.
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.