Shocking Accusations

[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.


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.

Which is wonderful.

Except for one problem: U.S.-made stun weapons are also used by torturers worldwide to inflict some of the most horrific pain imaginable.

The human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International has been tracking the growing popularity of stun weapons. In February, Amnesty released its findings in a report titled "Stopping the Torture Trade."

The report claims that about 80 U.S. companies manufactured or sold stun devices in the 1990s -- more than any other country in the world (Taiwan was No. 2, with only 17 companies). Under pressure from Amnesty, the Department of Commerce recently began requiring companies to obtain export licenses to send electroshock weapons overseas. But Amnesty says the export controls remain woefully inadequate, that shipments arriving in democratic countries are resold to nations notorious for human-rights violations.

"Electroshock devices have been used against children, the elderly, pregnant women and the mentally ill," reads the report. "Also, torturers often appear to prefer using electroshock weapons because they can inflict great pain without leaving permanent marks on the victim's body."

One victim from China said prison guards repeatedly shocked him with stun batons, including in his mouth and on his genitals, and the pain was so intense he was forced to wear a metal helmet. "The interrogators used this helmet to prevent fatalities," explains the report. "Some prisoners, unable to bear the pain of torture, would try to kill themselves by bashing their heads against the walls."

The report calls for a suspension of the sale of stun guns and Tasers until tougher export controls are enacted and a study from an independent research institution (such as a major university) determines their safety.

"We're putting something in [torturers'] hands that is perfectly designed for their purposes," says Alistair Hodgett, spokesperson for Amnesty International.

In the latest report, Amnesty cited Taser International, which claims to supply 90 percent of the national Taser market.

Smith says the majority of his customers are domestic law enforcement departments. He claims Amnesty is unfairly lumping in Tasers (which are often carried by police tactical divisions and patrol officers) with stun guns and stun batons (which are less expensive, and more likely to be carried by corrections officers).

And Smith may be right.

There are no incidents of torture-by-Taser mentioned in the Amnesty report. New Times was also unable to find any examples of Taser abuse in news archive searches. Hodgett says Amnesty's concern is that Tasers can be used for torture since the technology is essentially the same as other electroshock weapons.

Smith says misuse of any stun weapon is tragic, but he is convinced of the inherent positive impact of his product when used for conflict resolution -- the lesser of several alternative evils.

"[Amnesty has] gotten so focused on what could go wrong that they're not being a constructive voice in coming up with creative solutions," Smith says. "I don't care how good of a negotiator you are, sometimes verbal tactics are not going to get the job done."

The Taser can demonstrate the elasticity of time to a marvelous degree.

My Taser demonstration, for instance, seemed to last quite a while. Yet I know it was only one second, because only a second's worth of electric popping was picked up on my nearby cassette recorder. My involuntary yell was also captured.

The Taser International Web site, www.taser.com, describes the experience of being Tasered as having the body's nerve signals washed out in a "sea of white noise." The site says the experience is "not painful per se."

This is not true. Though the sensation varies from person to person, a study of Tasers in the Journal of Forensic Sciences reported that stun weaponry's "freeze-level" shocks are "painful, frightening and hard to endure."

What is the shock comparable to? It is difficult to figure. The shocks generated by stun weapons do not compare to conventional electric sources because the weapons produce a unique low amperage/high voltage pulsing charge that is unlike, say, a shock from an electrical wall socket or a car battery.

Electroshock weapons immobilize a subject through a series of impulse waves that clench the subject's muscles. You are effectively frozen, though your lack of mobility is the very least of your concerns. Your primary concern is the pain shooting between the two electrodes, and you want more than anything for it to stop.

When the current is turned off, the pain ceases as abruptly as it began. Which is remarkable. Normally, when you experience severe pain, you expect it to hang around, gradually fading as your body heals.

This is very different. And afterward, you can suddenly understand why electric shock is considered an effective (if discouraged) way to train animals, or make a human confess information, or make a suspect obey a police officer. Because though the pain stops, the memory of the pain remains vivid.

More than most weapons, electronic weapons are conducive to inspiring a sincerely subservient relationship.

Jack Cover, the inventor of the Taser, noted this phenomenon in his development notes.

"People apparently mentally deranged or drugged engaging in violent actions exhibit a complete personality change after being Tasered," he wrote. "The mood 'swing' from the unreasonable and uncontrollable is to a totally different one displaying reasonableness and willingness to cooperate."

Cover was a physicist with Hughes Aerospace who worked on the Apollo moon landing program. He has cited three sources of inspiration for his invention. In the 1960s, a presidential crime commission announced the need to develop non-lethal weapons to combat hijackers. About the same time, Cover read a newspaper article about a man who was immobilized by a power line for hours, yet walked away uninjured. And Cover recalled the Tom Swift adventure novels he read as a boy, where the young hero invented marvels such as an electric rifle.

Cover spent years developing his stun weapon, testing various electrical impulse combinations on himself, his son and animals. In 1974, Cover introduced the first generation of a weapon he called the TASER -- an acronym for "Tom Swift's Electric Rifle."

Police were initially intrigued, but were less impressed by field performance. The weapon was bulky and not always effective against subjects who were on stimulants such as PCP or cocaine.

Then, in the 1980s, competitors flooded the electroshock market with cheaper and less restricted forms of stun technology, such as hand-held shockers and stun batons. The products began an advertising hyperbole war that continues today.

Read ads for stun weapons, and you'll find an endless amount of voltage huckstering. Stun gun ads routinely claim they produce 100,000, 200,000, even 300,000 volts.

But voltage is not the best determination of a stun weapon's effectiveness. Voltage affects the distance a spark will jump from an electrical source. The primary benefit of higher voltage is that a stun weapon can better penetrate clothing.

Taser International counters that most stun guns -- which are typically powered by one or two 9-volt batteries -- have voltage peaks of 50,000 volts.

Hodgett says Taser International's complaint about fraud in stun weapon ads is probably its one point of agreement with Amnesty International.

The infighting and confusion bolster Amnesty's contention that there is a need for exhaustive independent testing to determine the true effects of all electroshock weapons. Not just for accuracy in advertising, but to determine once and for all whether stun weapons are killing people.

The term "non-lethal weapons" has fallen out of favor. The preferred term, the more accurate term used by many law enforcement agencies is "less than lethal."

"Less than lethal" acknowledges that no weapon is truly risk free. Rubber and wooden bullets can shoot through a person's eye (which occurred during the recent Tucson riot after the University of Arizona's basketball championship loss), and pepper spray can cause a fatal allergic response.

Overall, stun guns have a safe reputation. The amount of electrical current generated by stun weapons is a fraction of the minimal human safety standards set for electrified fences. In one study, the Los Angeles Police Department found a lower rate of injury for both suspects and officers when the Taser was deployed versus methods such as punching, or using a baton or pepper spray.

But, occasionally, a Taser victim dies anyway.

In 1991, the Journal of Forensic Sciences evaluated 16 cases where a person went into cardiac arrest and died subsequent to being shot with a Taser by Los Angeles police. All of the victims had a history of substance abuse and were behaving in a "bizarre or unusual fashion" when the police were called.

"The conclusion reached after evaluation of these cases is that the Taser in and of itself does not cause death," the report concluded, "although it may have contributed to the death in one case."

In other words, because the Taser's electrical current is modest and the victims were on drugs known to cause cardiac arrest, the Taser is not solely to blame.

Since the report, there have been other cases. In one incident, a Texas corrections officer with a history of heart problems died after receiving two 45,000-volt shocks from a stun shield during a training course. The shield manufacturer insisted the officer's demise was merely an unfortunate coincidence.

"All the evidence we have indicates that there has never been a death caused by one of these devices," Smith says.

In developing its latest model, Taser International performed product tests on anesthetized dogs, trying to induce heart failure using "all sorts of aggressive techniques."

"We wanted to try to fibrillate the dogs because, from a company perspective, if there is a risk we want to know what it is, so then we can disclaim against it," Smith says. "We were not able to do it."

Critics point out that anesthetized animals are very different from terrified humans. The adrenaline and stress from being Tasered, combined with a heart condition and/or destabilizing drugs, could prompt a heart attack even if the electricity itself does not. A 1997 article in the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin concluded, "The Taser has fallen out of use in many departments for various reasons, including the potential for accidental death."

"It's not stress free; it's not risk free," admits Smith. "But we have yet to see in the field a causal relationship with a fatality. Remember, this isn't a blender. This isn't a hair dryer. This isn't something you use casually."

Therefore, if the Taser is used instead of lethal force, it is a humane weapon.


In his book Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, Brian Martin argues that non-lethal weapons should be renamed. His preferred term isn't "less than lethal," but "repression technologies."

"The term 'non-lethal' serves a political function, suggesting that the weapons are more peaceful alternatives to lethal ones," Martin wrote. "In practice, non-lethal weapons typically serve as a supplement to lethal ones, especially in circumstances when deaths would boomerang on the side causing them."

Randall Amster, an Arizona State University adjunct Justice Studies professor, notes that such devices have been a mixed blessing for social activists such as himself.

"It's like rubber bullets, bean bags and tear gas," Amster says. "Since they're 'non-lethal,' police use them every time there's a protest, whereas 20 years ago the police had to seriously consider whether to use force. And with deadly force, they have to prove a very high level of threat. But what sort of threat is required for the use of a Taser?"

Too often, stun weapon users set a level of threat that's far too low.

The Virginia Department of Corrections recently suspended the use of stun guns after reports that guards used them to punish prisoners for infractions such as verbal insolence. In 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that a California day-care center was shut down after operators allegedly used stun guns to punish children, including infants. And the 1996 Department of Justice report on Maricopa County jails concluded that the availability of stun guns for guards "has contributed to the excessive use of force."

Phoenix criminal defense attorney Nick Hentoff has represented dozens of plaintiffs claiming stun-gun abuse by Maricopa County corrections officers. He says the weapons were used "as a matter of course" to punish "talking back to the guards."

"There's no doubt in my mind the vast majority of the time the stun guns were used in the jails as punishment -- which is illegal -- and not for compliance," Hentoff says. "I have no reason to believe that that has changed."

In 1997, Sheriff Joe Arpaio signed a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice pledging ". . . non-lethal weapons shall not be used solely to gain compliance, such as using an [Electronic Restraint Device] as a come-along tool" and acknowledged that "neither passive nor active resistance are sufficient to justify the use of non-lethal weapons."

In 1998, the Department of Justice certified that Maricopa County jails were in compliance with their agreement. But three weeks ago, Sheriff's spokesman Sergeant Don Rosenberger acknowledged that stun guns are still used to force inmates to comply with orders from guards. And when asked point-blank if the 1997 agreement had changed the way stun guns are used by corrections officers, Rosenberger said: "Nope."

Smith admits Amnesty has a "valid complaint" about his electroshock weaponry's potential misuse.

"They look at this," Smith says, indicating his latest Taser model. "They say, 'What it does to the human body is not nice, it's uncomfortable and this could be used to torture somebody.' They're right. But as soon as you put a man in prison with another man in control of him, you now have a situation where if you don't have the auditing controls in place there's the possibility of a myriad of types of abuse. Anywhere I can light a light bulb on planet Earth I can use a wire to torture you. So I'm not sure that's a good criteria for evaluating whether or not something should be available."

The counter-argument is that legitimizing stun weapons makes them acceptable to use in prisons where car-battery torture techniques would never be permitted.

"The distinction here is that [household torture] equipment has both legitimate and unintended uses," Hodgett says, "whereas we know from our research that this equipment is being abused worldwide."

Taser International claims to provide its weapons to 60 countries, and Smith admits he has no qualms about shipping to countries with a record of human rights violations.

"Philosophically, I do not agree with the concept of export controls on a weapons system like this, even to a country like China," he says. "The governments of those countries are going to make decisions irrespective of the availability of technology. Take Tiananmen Square. If they had more effective less-lethal technology, would they have rolled in with tanks?"

Advocating the export of weapons to China is a tough corner to defend -- especially for a capitalist claiming a humanitarian agenda. But Smith thinks his argument holds. An optimistic vision of promoting peace through weaponry.

"I think we can continue to develop better weapons, better guns, safer guns," Smith says. "And most people -- most rational human beings -- will gravitate towards the better technology. This is the gun of the future."

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd