Technology is a double-edged sword, the cliche goes. It can save and even extend your life, but it can also kill you in new and unpredictable ways. In the several years since the Arizona-based Taser International has deployed its terminologically challenging Electronic Control Devices (ECDs), colloquially known as stun guns or simply tasers, what started out as a midrange law enforcement weapon has turned into a surreal nightmare that has gone viral from streets to screens. It's now to the point that only a hyperreal comedian like Stephen Colbert can make sense of it.
"Nation, our gun rights are always under attack from the bleeding hearts," he cracked in late July, "and not just the hearts bleeding from a gunshot wound. Thankfully, there's the taser. It's the perfect weapon for when you really want to shoot someone, but killing them just seems like overkill."
Of course, Colbert milked the footage of accidental and purposeful taser victims, the latter being media and law enforcement members who signed up for shock therapy and provided the world with no shortage of hilarious video. But his point was well-taken: Thanks to the taser's wildfire deployment, classification as non-lethal weaponry and pop-cultural appeal in films, television, comics and even cartoons, cops have nearly lost their minds using it on everyone from children, the elderly, and pregnant mothers to the mentally unstable and physically disabled.
Or have their lost their spines? After all, the police are public servants, and were even once referred to as peace officers, charged with resolving disputes, defusing danger and, when necessary, applying lethal force to keep the public safe. But lately, and thanks partially to the taser's alleged safety, they have been leaving peace behind in favor of brutalizing innocent civilians with accelerating lunacy. That kind of unarmed diplomacy takes real work, and involves much more than simply firing off electrified darts and wires. But rarely is there a day that goes by without another news entry doesn't stun, pardon the pun, the senses.
The latest case, as of this writing at least, involves a Syracuse mother who was pulled out her car during a routine traffic stop. She was summarily tasered, cuffed and arrested in front of her kids by an officer who left them behind, alone in their car, while he took her to the station and charged her for resisting arrest, driving five miles over the speeding limit, and disorderly conduct -- the diaphanous charge controversially leveled on Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. earlier this year.
There's plenty more where that came from. Did you hear the one about the pregnant woman who was tasered because she wouldn't sign her speeding ticket, or the pregnant woman who was tasered at a baptism party thrown by her father, a bible-study teacher who was charged with public intoxication in his own backyard and whose wife and son were also tasered? How about the officer who tasered a pregnant woman while inside the police department?
Or the cop who tasered a girl, no lie, in the brain, because he couldn't chase her down on foot? Or the one that shoved a taser up a man's ass in Idaho? Or those who tasered and pepper-sprayed an umbrella-wielding man in a Dollar Store bathroom, and after finding out that he was both mentally disabled and deaf still decided to charge him with resisting arrest, failure to obey a police officer and (of course) disorderly conduct, charges which the on-duty magistrate refused to accept? And don't forget the belligerent baseball fan, the 72-year old grandmother, the bride and groom tasered at their wedding, the bicyclists who were tased after cops tried to run them off the road. And what about that guy who burst into flames? What about the six-year-old who was tasered after threatening to cut his own leg with a glass? (That'll teach him!)
And those are the ones that lived. The black man tasered nine times in 14 minutes? Not so lucky.
"You're picking plane crashes," argued Steve Tuttle, vice-president of communications and one of Taser International's founding members, by phone to AlterNet. "We're not in the business of armchair quarterbacking, and we don't write the use-of-force policies. That's left up to individual agencies and the constitutional guidelines. When we see the controversies, we have to take a look at the totality of the circumstances."
To Tuttle's credit, he didn't shy away from the controversies surrounding his company, and even correctly characterized the aforementioned, egregious situations: They are indeed plane crashes, full of human and mechanical wreckage that are nearly impossible to turn away from. And with each new astounding report, they're bringing more heat onto the already embattled company, whose stock has plummeted nearly 80 percent since 2005. In 2008, Taser had to dish out $5 million in punitive damages after a product-liability suit found the company to blame for improperly informing police that repeated shocks could kill suspects such as Robert Heston, who died after police officers in California tasered him multiple times until he stopped moving. In addition, Taser has settled at least ten cases out of court with not distraught suspects but rather police officers, who were injured by tasers during training.
The disturbing developments caught the watchful eye of Amnesty International, which publicly worried that tasers were quickly becoming "tools of routine force."
"There is plenty of evidence that the use of conducted energy devices now frequently -- even routinely -- occurs in situations where there is no significant threat to law enforcement officers," Amnesty International spokesperson Wendy Gozan Brown explained to AlterNet. "Rather than being used as weapons of last resort, police employ tasers without considering the consequences. About 90 percent of the more than 350 people who have died in the U.S. after being shocked with such weapons were unarmed. And in dozens of cases, medical examiners have found CEDs to be a cause or contributory factor of death."
For his part, Tuttle admitted the danger, but he's still hurt by Amnesty International's approach. Or is that reproach?
"We've reached out to Amnesty International with olive branches and with iron gloves," he said. "We're not that dissimilar; we both want to protect human rights. They're selectively choosing the incidents."
In Taser's defense, its deployment has displaced other mid-range weaponry like pepper spray and batons -- "a caveman's tool," asserted Tuttle -- and even more old-fashioned, hands-on techniques like punching, kicking and chokeholds. And the use of tasers has decreased danger to both suspects and officers, according to some unlikely sources.
"I've seen the early adoption of these weapons as they bloomed across the country," explained Scott Greenwood, lead counsel and police misconduct litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) national chapter, "in large part because the traditional use-of-force continuum hasn't done a good job filling in the range between the club and the firearm. If you have very serious and very strict use-of-force policy, very good training and a very strong culture of reporting, then you see injuries to citizens radically decrease and you see a radical decrease of deadly force. That's from departments that do it the right way; it's the departments that do it the wrong way," that are causing the most problems, Greenwood clarified.
Greenwood's caveats aside, it is always those who misuse any product, from prescription medication to high-fructose corn syrup and beyond, that mess it up for everyone else going by the book, so to speak. The disastrous misapplication of tasers has no greater example than Iman Morales, the mentally disturbed man who was tasered on building ledge in New York, and fell immobilized to his death. Shortly after the controversial episode, NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly said such use of the taser might have violated policy and new training was needed. He also replaced the new commander of the Emergency Service Unit that responded to Morales' disturbance. But it was all too late for lieutenant Michael Pigott, the officer who ordered the tasering of Morales: He was stripped of his gun and badge, demoted and later shot himself in the head in a NYPD locker room after finding out that he might be a criminal suspect in Morales' death.
Tuttle conceded that death, and some applications of the taser, are unnecessary and improper.
"We specifically tell someone not to use a taser when a suspect is elevated," he said. "It could cause death. The anus is clearly a misuse of the device. We're not averse to discussing these things."
But it is clear from the increasing penetration of the taser into pop culture that use of the weapon within, and without, legally limited guidelines -- the gray area so beloved by lawyers, marketers, and law enforcement -- carries some kind of cachet. The shady corporation in charge of chasing down mutants, and perhaps destroying the world (depending on the season), in NBC's Heroes openly use tasers, glorifying the weapon for prime-time. Tasers have also shown up in comics, lately in DC Comics' otherwise cool Doom Patrol series. The latest lovers on ABC's hit show Lost first met when one tasered the other. Even the world's finest detective, the Dark Knight himself, took darts and wires to the chestplate for his girlfriend in Batman Begins.
"We've seen it used spectacularly," Tuttle explained. "I've seen hundreds of cartoons that have it. I saw three shows last night that had it, including a Disney kids' show and a Cops episode. It's out there in pop culture. That poor yahoo that said 'Don't tase me bro!' got us tremendous name recognition. We do provide them to prop houses, which give it to movies that use them. But sometimes the exposure isn't a pleasant experience, especially when it's a trademark violation."
To be sure: In April, Taser sued Linden Labs, creators of the online virtual world Second Life, for trademark infringement after the San Francisco-based company allowed virtual tasers for sale in the alternative world's marketplace. That's the kind of bizarre twist pop culture can create when it mashes reality and hyperreality too hard. You can see that process of glamorization and trademark in different form on Taser's own site: It currently alternates shots of founders and brothers Rick and Tom Smith in posing in taser-matching hero outfits with information on its new weapon the X3, which can now strike three people at once. And then there's Taser's keynote video, delivered during a training conference, which features kickass metal music and is emceed by an announcer who sounds as if he's on loan from the Academy Awards.
But glamorization doesn't come cheap, as Taser will find out the more its company name and controversial weaponry go viral. Those costs eventually come home to roost, and when they do, it is usually the glamorization that takes the bullet.
"I do believe that Taser International is partly to blame," argued Peter Bibring, staff attorney for ACLU's Southern California chapter. "Their marketing, particularly their initial marketing, overemphasized the safety of tasers. Taser International publishes the training used by most police departments. It deliberately cites medical research that it sponsors. If you give officers a device that is a substitute for a gun and tell them it can't hurt anyone, they're going to use it over and over again, in circumstances that don't call for use of force and on potentially vulnerable populations like pregnant women, the elderly and children."
"There's a learning curve when departments get tasers," Tuttle concluded. "Cops aren't perfect. They're human, but we expect them to be Robocop."
A fitting description, given the fantasy of power and technology that tasers and other weaponry imbue their carriers with. Compelled by an increasingly permissive militarism that has gone supernova since 9/11 and arrmed with state-of-the-art force technology, taser-happy cops are in danger of becoming cyborgs out of step with the humanity they're in charge of pacifying. Characterized as Heroes or elevated to the status of Robocop, without fully understanding the weapons that can save their lives, and kill those they're supposed to protect, they're walking a tightrope between thuggery and enforcement, and losing their balance with every bad episode.
"Tasers have been widely deployed without the benefit of rigorous, independent studies into their safety and potential health risks," Gozan Brown asserted, echoing Bibring's concern. "There's no government agency that has mandated testing," he added.
But Tuttle as the company he helped found are standing as firm as the "pinewood" taser victims turn into after being shocked. The danger for Taser is that same as it is for those suspects who won't bend: They could topple over, or be pushed by everything from lawsuits to newer and safer tools, and not get up again.
"We stand by our technology," he argued. "It's a litigious country, so you're going to have lawsuits. But we're in the business of selling tools to law enforcement, and their judgment will always come into question."
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.