A lawsuit filed by the family of a Virginia man, who died after being tased
approximately 20 times by three police officers while he laid on his back near the entrance of a hospital, has led to the much-publicized release of video footage of the incident and has contributed to growing scrutiny of the use of Tasers by police.
For the past decade and a half, police have been taught that tasers are a safe tool for pacifying potentially violent citizens. But with Taser-related fatalities becoming more common, and the weapon's own manufacturer conceding that improper use can be deadly, the myth of Tasers as inherently safe beggars belief.
While studying at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, Nick Berardini learned of the death of Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old Missouri man stopped for a traffic infraction in front of his house, who ended up dying of a heart attack after being tased three different times for a total of 31 seconds. Fascinated by the lethality of the "revolutionary" law enforcement tool, Berardini exhaustively researched the history of the Taser, resulting in the newly released documentary Killing Them Safely, available on demand and in limited release via IFC Films.
In a phone interview last week, Berardini told me the film is not a polemic, but in fact is told from the point of view of TASER International, the company that manufactures the weapon.
"We try to shift the moral standard in order to justify our decisions. What that means is without real self-awareness, we can justify almost anything," says Berardini, referring to both the police who deploy Tasers on human beings as well as Tom and Rich Smith, the brothers who co-founded TASER International.
Watch the film's trailer and read the full interview below:
Reason: Was the germ of this film born while you were still a student?
Berardini: I began shooting this film right after graduation. I was interested in what happened to Stanley Harlan, the kid that was killed in Moberly, Missouri. Because everything on the surface seems very clear-cut: that this was a mistake, that the officers were aggressive in using force, but they didn't mean to kill him.
As I dealt more with the training of the officers and more broadly with what the weapon can do, that was the officers' understanding, they thought what was happening to [Harlin] that night would be impossible. That made me more curious about TASER International.
Reason: Given the imperfect science of developing technologies, some people might make analogies such as "Drone strikes are better than boots on the ground in a warzone and cops using Tasers is better than cops shooting people." In general, would you say Tasers a better law enforcement tool than guns?
Berardini: That concept is why the company has been able to be so successful for so long, because on the surface that makes sense. As an alternative to deadly force, clearly this weapon is the choice. It's much better to taser somebody in a violent, high-risk situation than having to resort to a gun or even having to fight that person hand-to-hand. The problem is, practically, that's not how the weapons are used. They are really designed to be used as compliance tools. There's a disconnect, where the public believes [Tasers] are an alternative to deadly force, so when somebody is hurt or killed they're not surprised because they assume there's some justifiable level of victim-blaming, versus the officers saying they are safe and can be used in any context and any confrontation. A lot of these people who die or are hurt are put in situations where their lives should never be put at risk to begin with. It's that misconception about how they're used that allows the company to continue to thrive.
Reason: The Taser was invented in 1969. When did its use pass the threshold of normalcy as a law enforcement tool?
Berardini: For 30 years, they were deemed ineffective, because they were not powerful enough to subdue a highly motivated offender, potentially on drugs, an aggressive person that needs to be controlled beyond pain compliance.
In 1999, what the Smith brothers [the founders of TASER International] do is increase the power of the weapon in order to make it effective. The company was under dire circumstances, facing bankruptcy. They didn't make that decision thinking people were going to die. They made it, as a lot of us would in that position, in order to avoid bankruptcy. So in that context, the decision made a lot of sense. But by 2004, the weapons were so effective at controlling people, they dramatically changed how officers did their jobs. The company knew officers would be enamored with the technology. In fact, it was so easy that it starts to seep through lower and lower levels of force, because the officers believed it was safe.
The company, as a weapons manufacturer, had a very expensive weapon, a weapon that's always been for the most part more expensive than the officer's gun. In order to get departments to buy the weapon, they had to convince them it was safe, so they could be used in a lot of different contexts. Not just a niche weapon against an aggressive or motivated person, because the regular street officer doesn't see enough of those scenarios to justify how expensive the weapons are.
Reason: How much money is spent by law enforcement agencies on Tasers, annually?
Berardini: My estimation is that the company will generate about $176 million in revenue in 2015, though it could come in closer to $200 million in revenue. It's hard to say specifically with each department, but what they're doing is they're using the existing relationships they have selling Tasers to sell body cameras, and they're doing it with the same rhetoric. You know, "The public doesn't understand your job; the public is going to make these frivolous claims against you; you need to protect yourself from the public."
The problem with that is even though body cameras aren't a weapon, we still don't know the practicality of how body camera footage is going to be stored. It's incredibly expensive, the company charges a really hefty amount for storage, which is why you see a lot of short sellers having success against Taser right now on Wall Street, and who has access to that footage is really not determined.
So again, it's this rush to turn to technology to get to the root of something deeper and the [police] departments are willfully doing that because they want to look proactive to the citizens. There's a lot of public strife about shootings and police use of force, well here's a way they can look like they're doing something about it.
"Let's buy Tasers," which ironically has no real history of reducing deadly force anywhere that I've looked at it. There's been several investigations into their use in big cities, and none of them have determined that Taser has dramatically reduced deadly force.
Then it's, "Let's buy body cameras," because that will inherently make the departments more transparent. But that also isn't necessarily true because video is often times subjective. We can find what we want to find in a video. It's very rarely clear-cut.
Reason: The film includes some really harrowing footage of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish national who died after being repeatedly tased at Vancouver International Airport. Given how much surveillance footage shows him helplessly wandering around the airport, and how many poor decisions by authority figures led to the violent confrontation that caused his death, it's like watching a train crash in slow motion. At every turn, the maximum use of force is used. But as terrible as it is, this is still anecdotal evidence. Are these isolated incidents? Is there any data that suggests that police are using Tasers as first-resorts and avoiding de-escalation techniques?
Berardini: The first caveat is obviously, part of the problem with use of force in the United States is its very difficult to get accurate reporting because all the departments are autonomous. The Department of Justice doesn't oversee or force them to do certain mandatory reporting based on the use of force or based on how many in-custody deaths there are. So the data often comes from retroactive news investigations.
There is a lot of evidence of what's been called "lazy cop syndrome" that because they think the weapons are safe and because they're effective at controlling people, it's easy to become reliant on them.
Now Taser says they try to train that out of officers in the training, but they don't really, the only way to do that would be to be honest about the potential risks that are involved. And they don't want to do that because the officer's behavior is going to change if he thinks there's a chance he could really kill or hurt someone. He's not really going to change his behavior if the consequences aren't that dire. He's still going to choose, more or less, that easy use of force option. And the reason that happens is a lot of the policies that are written by departments are vague. There's not a lot of restrictions about how often you can tase someone, there's not a lot of honesty about what the actual risks are.
What ends up happening is they do change the way they're used based on litigation. What we've started to tally is how much departments have paid out in liabilities because of Tasers and the company is included in this number a little bit, but the majority is police departments paying out settlements of wrongful death or excessive force. And that number is over $100 million at this point. That's what changes the behavior. This is very sad, it doesn't have to be this way, because that means somebody is going to hurt or die before someone takes it seriously.
Reason: There's a line in the movie that "There's no FDA for Tasers." Has there been any push by either the federal or local governments for increased regulations on the lawful use of Tasers?
Berardini: In terms of strict regulation, it doesn't make a lot of sense. The two electrical standards bodies, the Underwriter's Lab and the International Electrotechnical Commission don't understand how electricity works under the skin. No electrical standards body has tested Tasers because they don't know how. They don't want to get involved because they don't want to be liable.
In terms of stricter regulation from the FDA, it's such a niche product. It's regulated the same way as toasters because it's really the only product of its kind. It's a weapon, but there's nothing like it. Under what umbrella should it fall? We shouldn't overregulate, because most enterprenuers are not making weapons.
Reason: And as a weapon, its not like there's a big market for drug dealers to be buying Tasers.
Berardini: Exactly. It goes into the hands of people we trust. For example, if they were popular consumer devices, which they're not, we would pay closer attention because people would die in domestic disputes. Therefore, there's not a lot of pressure because of who's carrying them: cops. And we tend to justify giving them the authority to use force because it's necessary to maintain order.
Reason: Taser has changed some of their guidelines, for example, they tell police to not aim at the chest anymore. What else has changed about their training of law enforcement officers? Are police departments changing their policies on the use of Tasers independent of what the company recommends?
Berardini: The biggest thing Taser has done, because they were losing or settling so many lawsuits, has been to put in these warnings. The problem is that nobody is taking the warnings seriously because Taser controls the training and they like to speak out of both sides of their mouth.
What they like to say, as evidenced by that conference call with all those police departments that you see in the film, is "Well, the only reason we put this in here is because greedy lawyers want to sue us." And what that does is make the officer feel even more loyal to the company because just like him or her, the company has dealt with being misunderstood.
It's one of these things that has sadly put a target on the backs of the police departments. Now they're the ones left holding the bag. It's very hard to go back to the judge and say "I didn't know this could happen," because there's some fine print in Taser's training that says, "Yes, it can."
So it's about the intention of those warnings that make it very dangerous, because they're there but they're not taken seriously because the company is paying for all the training. They're controlling the training from the top-down. They're paying master instructors to go and train all these other officers, but [the instructors] are independent contractors of the company. They're de facto salesmen. They're not going to say, "Be careful when you shoot somebody in the chest: They might die." That's not the way it works. They'll say, "Don't shoot anybody in the chest if you can avoid it, because you want to avoid the controversy that someone might think that the Taser might kill someone." But it doesn't.
I literally just heard from an officer I was on a radio show with last week, "The electricity from a Taser has never been responsible for anyone's death." I mean, the company itself admits that's not true. Internally, they've discussed that it's not a question of if it happens, but how often it happens. And that's what the movie becomes about, this cost-benefit analysis that the company is doing which inherently devalues the lives tasers take.
Reason: So the company concedes that its product is potentially lethal, but when speaking with its customers, it undercuts its own warnings?
Berardini: What's frustrating about the company is that they argue these things like they're hypotheticals. They're not hypotheticals, they found these risks in research and then someone died in the field. It's not like we're guessing here. The risks have played themselves out.
And then they call me a conspiracy theorist because they're acting like you have to be a crazy person to believe they have some information that says these weapons are dangerous. The movie is from their point of view. They admit it themselves. Their image is very important, if they can make it appear to be some sort of debate, some sort of unsettled thing, it becomes a lot easier to convince officers in training that they're being misunderstood, that they're an easy target.
Reason: There's a striking moment near the end of the film when Taser company spokesman Steve Tuttle says, "a good revolution comes with pain." I can honestly say I couldn't surmise the meaning of that. Was he referring to the pain the company has gone through or was he talking about the pain certain people might have to experience for the greater good?
Berardini: He's 100 percent referencing what the company has gone through. This movie is set up as the way this company sees itself versus what it really is. And in this reckoning of this movie: will they come to terms with who they've become that's divergent from their initial idealism?
And I think what they're saying is proof of their delusion.
In order to sleep at night, in the wake of this collateral damage, they can only believe in themselves as a completely necessary and justifiable life-saving company. Because otherwise the collateral damage would be devastating.
That's why the film spends so much time in those deposition rooms. It's not just about the information that's given, it's about the way we watch them evolve with the weight on them as human beings. You can tell they're wrestling with it. But ultimately, they way they keep thriving is just to believe in the best version of themselves.
Reason: They have a ticker on their website that claims to have saved a tens of thousands of lives. How many are they up to now?
Berardini: The bullshit ticker? The made-up ticker?
Reason: Do they offer any data to back up that number?
Berardini: They say they've saved 157,000 lives, although since the release of the film at film festivals, they've taken that ticker off their homepage but put it on a separate page and it no longer automatically updates.
They used a study or an abstract that said 5 percent of all Taser uses are used in high-risk scenarios, which in itself is kind of scary, that only 5 percent of Taser uses are done in high-risk assaultive scenarios, and so what they did was they took that 5 percent and multiplied it with the number of times somebody's been tasered and come up with a number. Which is totally ridiculous when you think about it, because we're looking at probably an estimated 1,500 people a year who die in police custody, which includes shootings. So that means before [Taser] got in business we were at 16,000 or 17,000 people a year?
But they say something that sounds sort of true and officers believe it, because they want to believe it. There's no real data to back it up, it's ridiculous when you think about it, but it works.
Reason: Have you had any contact with anyone from the company since the movie started screening at film festivals?
Berardini: No, although Steve Tuttle responded once in a Newsweek article and another time in a statement responding to an interview I did with the Marshall Project. Their best bet is to try to discredit me as much as possible. Which is fine because I made the movie from the company's point of view to prove that I wasn't setting out to try to show how dangerous these weapons are. I was setting out to try to understand them. That was genuine. I didn't trick them into doing anything and I didn't manipulate what I got in order to make some broad claim into how dangerous Tasers are.
They had a really fascinating view of their own existence and that's what we wanted to highlight. The mission ultimately became trying to show how they had started with this idealism and diverged into something completely different and how they were coming to grips with that.
My point-of-view as a filmmaker is being fascinated by the way in which human beings, in general, we try to shift the moral standard in order to justify our decisions. What that means is without real self-awareness, we can justify almost anything. And that's not a question of being evil, that's a question of being human.