Talkin' Tasers

The ironies started early. Here we were, in a museum devoted to things that kill -- from lances to revolvers to laser weapons of the "Western Space Alliance." But inside the cranberry-colored auditorium at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, we 120-or-so white guys gathered to talk about weapons that are specifically designed not to cause lasting harm.taser_side_mirror.JPGMost of the presenters at Jane's 8th Annual Less-Lethal Weapons Conference -- and most of the audience -- were cops or soldiers or weapons salesmen or military-funded academics. So I figured the presentations would mostly sing the praises of these weapons. That's the way it would've worked back home, in the U.S.But things were different here. Of the eleven speakers today, two were outwardly hostile. Five more expressed serious reservations about "less-lethals," generally -- and about specifically about Tasers, the highest profile of the weapons.As the critiques piled up, however, I got increasingly nervous. Because I had been told it was my job to "stir things up" at the confab. So I had prepared a pretty tough analysis of the often ham-handed, often squirrelly way that Taser International markets its products and deals with the press. (Click here for the prepared text.)So I gulped, and got on stage. Instantly, I was told by the moderator to make it quick, because things were running behind schedule. Gulp again. But I took the time to start with a beer joke. At least it would get the Canadians in the room laughing.As I plowed through my talk , I could see the host getting more and more uncomfortable. See, Taser was one of the main sponsors of the conference. And I was at least the fifth or sixth guy peeing on the company's parade. About three-quarters of the way through the talk, the moderator cut me off. I guess it was getting late. Plus, the moderator wanted to assure the audience -- and the folks from Taser, standing in the back -- that my talk was "billed" as a speech on "press relations." It was a mistake to focus too much on one company, he added.I got back on the mic, and emphasized that I wasn't trying to beat up on the company (well, not its products, anyway). Taser was just a case study. It's the less-lethal weapons-maker we all knew best in the States. And how it's perceived will reflect on other less-lethal firms -- and users -- for years to come. The audience clapped to that. And afterwards, a rep from Taser said he had enjoyed the talk. He'd fly in from London, he told me, to personally show me around the company's Arizona HQ.

Here's the talk...The LLW Paradox. I'm here today to talk about how the public and the press sees LLWs. Specifically, I'm going to talk about the paradox behind LLW perceptions. We've got a class of weapons that has been specifically designed not to be killers to give soldiers and police a more humane, safer way to handle conflicts. But, judging from the press accounts, you'd think those weapons were mass killers. Roll out a modern-day daisy cutter, designed to wipe out a neighborhood in a single stroke, and the media applauds. Test a stun gun that might shock a single suspect, and, all of a sudden, reporters start getting very antsy. Shoot someone with in the face with a .45, and theres a teeny-tiny mention of it on page B29. Shoot someone with a rubber bullet, and its front page news.The question is: why? Where does all this hostility come from? What's behind this less-lethal paradox? Lets look at Taser Internationals line of LLWs as a kind of case study. Because, with all the attention being paid to the company, Taser serves as a bell weather for the entire LL movement. Ill get in to some larger, cultural issues in a moment. But in Taser International's case, specifically, I'd argue that how the company markets itself -- and deals with the press -- has made an already adversarial environment much, much worse.Just about every newspaper, just about every television station has run a damaging story about Tasers. Maybe it's an allegation of Taser abuse; maybe it's someone dying after being stunned; maybe it's a lawsuit; maybe it's a new report about whether the stun guns are really safe. The end result is a tide of bad press for the company, with little attention paid to the lives that might be saved by the stun guns, or the conflicts that get more or less peacefully resolved.The Selling of the Stun Gun. Back in 2001, Taser International marketed its weapons as "less lethal." But as the stun guns have gained in popularity and the questions around their use have grown louder the company has changed its tune. Tasers became completely "non-lethal," according to the company. In small print, the company says that "non-lethal" means the Pentagon definition: "weapons that are explicitly designed to incapacitate." But most people don't read the small print. They assume non-lethal means "it doesn't kill." And Taser officials have helped that assumption along, by meeting any suggestion that Taser's weapons are anything but benign with an all-out assault.For example, last October, Amnesty International came out with a report on Tasers that I thought was pretty balanced, given the source. It started out by "acknowledg[ing] the importance of developing 'less than lethal' force options to decrease the risk of death or injury inherent in the use of firearms." That sounds like a sentence straight out of a Taser International press release. Then the Amnesty report went on to say that "while coroners have tended to attribute such deaths to other factors (such as drug intoxication), some medical experts question whether the Taser shocks may exacerbate a risk of heart failure in cases where persons are agitated, under the influence of drugs, or have underlying health problems such as heart disease.""Some medical experts question whether the Taser shocks may exacerbate a risk of heart failure." Like I said, pretty mild.But Taser Internationals response was double-barreled: "Anyone living in the real world in which law enforcement officers worldwide have to make split-second life or death decisions knows that Amnesty Internationals report and position is out of step with the needs of law enforcement concerning our proven life-saving technology Furthermore, we are particularly disappointed by Amnesty Internationals complete disregard for the health and safety of the men and women of law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day."That is what we call in my business the "classic non-denial denial." There's no response to the substance of the matter. Only name calling. To reporters, this isnt a convincing response. Its an admission that the Amnesty report is largely accurate. Its an invitation to dig deeper.Besides, we all know that no weapon is 100% "non-lethal." Not even a fist. Thats why this conference is on less-lethal weapons, and not non-lethals. If thats true, than why has Taser International clung so tightly to the non-lethal label. And is the company's insistence angry insistence on its lack of lethality helping its image in the media or hurting it?Another example: This past June, USA Today, embarrassingly, screwed up the number of amperes that the Taser guns put out. The paper made it sound like the weapons were 100 times stronger than an electric chair. The firm responded by suing USA Today's parent company, Gannett, for "libel, false light invasion of privacy, injurious falsehood and tortious interference with business relations."Now, this is a bad idea on any number of levels. Not only are libel cases all-but-impossible to win in the United States. But it also gives the impression that Taser's arguments can't stand on their merits they have to turn to the courts instead. Worse still, Gannett owns the firm's hometown paper. So suddenly, it's got an adversary in its back yard. Again, is Taser Internationals pugilistic attitude helping Taser or hurting it?The Coroner's Call. For years, Taser International officials boasted that their weapons had never been cited in an autopsy report. "No deaths have occurred as a direct result of the use of TASER technology products," the company said in April 2004. "We continue to be amazed by the premature, unfounded, speculation in the media concerning the unexpected, unforeseen deaths of criminal suspects while in police custody after use of TASER device. In every single case the medical examiner has attributed the direct cause of death in the autopsy reports to causes other than the TASER device."On July 18, 2004, that changed. The company's hometown paper, the Arizona Republic, discovered that Taser International couldn't have known what coroners were saying, because the company hadn't even started keeping track of autopsy reports until April of that year. Whats more, the paper instantly claimed it had found eight cases where Tasers were found to be a contributing cause of death. Now, that number has grown to 18 deaths is which a Taser may have been a factor.The company responded by citing numerous "independent" studies which it said proved the weapons were safe. But exactly how independent those studies were is a matter of debate. One was a January 2005 Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology report, which asserted that the Taser ''may be safely applied multiple times if needed." But that study could hardly be called independent two of the report's four authors were Taser employees.To make matters worse, on July 29th, a Cook County, Illinois medical examiner became the first to list the electro-shock weapon as a primary cause of death. Now, this was an unusual case. Ronald Hasse was shocked for 57 seconds, more than 10 times the usual amount, before he died. So the company could have said this was some kind of gross negligence or freakish oversight an outlier, am exception that actually proves the rule. Instead, the company immediately hit back, challenging the coroner's conclusion.The next month, two doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a shock from a Chicago Police Taser caused a 14-year-old to die from cardiac arrest. Again, the company immediately disputed this allegation, as it has done so many times before. It sent a memo out to law enforcement agencies that the doctors had it wrong.But the Arizona Republic now counts 147 deaths somehow tied to Taser use. Obviously, there were extenuating circumstance in a large number of these cases drugs, heart problems, what have you. And maybe the stun guns are completely blameless in each and every case. But there are only so many body bags an image can take. Denial, pushback, and lawsuits only go so far.The Shadow of Abu Ghraib. Even if Taser had kept a much less militant tone all along, it would have still face a very skeptical press, however.In most people's minds, torture and pain are intertwined. And so any weapon which is primarily designed to deliver pain is automatically going to be seen as a torture device. In that way, just about every LLW is going to begin with a cloud of suspicion overhead.But Tasers have it worse than most. Electricity and electro-shock weapons have been used by governments around the world to torture their citizens and their captives. Amnesty International has documented electro-shock torture in 87 countries. Not just in the places youd expect it, like Saudi Arabia or China. But in America, and Canada, and Spain.Tasers, for the most part, have not been directly involved. But the company has suffered from the association. In fact, sometimes, the American military has used the painful associations with electricity to their advantage.None of us will ever forget those awful pictures from Abu Ghraib, the ones with prisoners wired up, to simulate electrical torture. But heres a story which most people arent familiar with: During the early days of the Iraq war, the American military was having major difficulties at a prisoner-of-war camp holding "high-value detainees." Members of the 800th Military Police Brigade had to use lethal force several times to quell prisoner uprisings. Then, one of them had an idea: Saddams regime had routinely used electrical torture devices on dissidents. So maybe the former Baathists would be particularly scared of an electrical weapon, like the Taser. The military police were trained on the weapon. And immediately after the training, an Army report later noted, one company commander took the M-26 into the compound and held it aloft pulling the trigger. The 15 high voltage arcs per second were enough to intimidate the previously hostile prisoners and there has not been an assault against the guards since that time."'Holy Shit!' was the response, said one soldier who was there that day. They moved away, they got it in line. It was a significant event for them."The next year, four American soldiers were punished for "excessive use of force," And "in particular the unauthorized use of Taser."Hollywood has only reinforced the association between tasing and torturing. During one episode of the show "24," a suspected American turncoat is tased repeatedly in the neck during interrogation.Stories of police using the weapons against toddlers and the wheelchair-bound have only reinforced the idea that the stun guns can be wielded with devilish intentions. Last November, Miami police used a Taser on a six-year old, to keep from cutting himself with a piece of glass. A South Tucson, Arizona police sergeant was put under investigation for tasing a handcuffed 9-year-old girl. One analysis of 2,690 Taser field uses, cited by Amnesty International, "shows 183 applications (7.4%) involving children aged 10 to 18."A Denver Post report from May 4, 2004 found that 90 percent of the subjects tased by the police department there were unarmed. Most times, the weapon was used to "force people to obey orders, to shortcut physical confrontations and, in several cases, to avoid having to run after a suspect." More than two-thirds of those charged with a crime faced only a misdemeanor charge or a citation. In December, 2004, Miami police used a Taser to subdue a man in a wheelchair who threatened them with scissors. Four months later, local authorities Tasered an Orlando man was handcuffed to a hospital bed for refusing to take a urine test that would confirm he had ingested cocaine."Why are some members of law enforcement becoming so seemingly reckless with their Tasers? Obviously, sometimes most of the time -- it's the result of poor decision-making, or just plain bad policing. But Id argue that, in a larger sense, the restrictions on Taser use are loosening because many cops view them as absolutely, positively, 100 percent non-lethal just like the company claims. In fact, a Taser may be viewed as the only absolutely, positively, 100 percent non-lethal item theyve got in their arsenal. Yes, theres been safety training from the company. But the message theyve heard over and over again is that there are no repercussions to Taser use. What's the harm, then, is using one of the weapons on anyone?"The Taser originally was seen strictly as an alternative to deadly force," the Tampa Tribune notes. The company promotes this view over and over again on its website. But, over time, that view has changed in Tampa, and around the world. Now, a Tampa officer "can use the Taser if the suspect is offering 'passive physical resistance.' The suspect does not have to pose a threat to anyone; he may be making an officer's job more difficult by staying put when he is asked to move or bracing his arms when officers are trying to handcuff him The reasoning is: By refusing to move as ordered, a suspect is forcing a deputy to resort to force - grab a suspect, say, or chase him - and in an ensuing struggle, the deputy or suspect might be hurt. So the deputy shoots him with the Taser instead."So in the space of a couple of years, tasing went from being the alternative to shooting someone, to the alternative to grabbing someones arm. That is just wrong. And, until it stops, Tasers are going to looks less and less like a humane tool for policing and more and more like an easy, lazy way to torture. No wonder the companys press is so bad.Beyond the Stonewall. The point here isnt to beat up on Taser. Its to provide an example of how guys like me are seeing the company in particular, and LLWs as a whole. Consider it friendly advice. Tough love.So how could Taser International and, by extension, other LLW makers start to repair the damage? Realism is a good start. Everybody knows that every weapon can kill. So stop feeding reporters and citizens fairy tales. Recently, the company has begun to back off the "non-lethal" claims; the description has vanished from recent press releases. That's a good start. Pushing further would be even better. Admit that the weapon, in the wrong hands, can be dangerous. Shine a light on those problems and, in the process, educate the police and the public on how the weapons can be used safely. Cooperate fully in all investigations don't hit back every time a coroner finds something distasteful. Find out how the company can help. Again, Taser has made some good progress here, with the new camera addition to its X26 model. But theres more to be done.Next, partner up with critics. Not sit with someone from Amnesty International on some panel. Really partner with them: take their advice, implement their proposals. They've had questions about whether independent studies are really independent? Fine, help *them* set up studies. They're worried about police misuse of Tasers? Fine, ask them what kind of training materials they'd like to see.This is hard. No question about it. But nothing could go further to restoring Taser International's image than a seal of approval from the ACLU or Amnesty International.It may require eating some crow. But it can't be worse than the beating Taser International is taking in the press today. And if it can turn its image around, all LLW users will benefit. And the promise of breaking the cycle of violence can finally begin to be fulfilled.At the end of the talk, Taser Internationals Steve Hynd got up to say that that these kinds of dialogues were already under way. By the way, he added, the company had offered both ACLU and Amnesty twice the chance to hand-pick researchers that Taser would then fund. The groups, he claimed, turned Taser down.In the U.K., however, these kinds of partnerships already seem to be in placeas Tasers begin to be slowly rolled out here. Ian Arundale, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that consulting with pressure groups like Amnesty was a critical precursor to a more widely arming local cops with the weapons. The more we build up arguments to satisfy these observers, the better.

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