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Taser International Inc.

TI can be filed under the heading ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time’. The police are always having to shoot unruly people, often resulting in a big fuss, right? Though they are almost never judged wrong in these lethal decisions, it is definitely messy, with time-consuming investigations and big legal bills. Wouldn’t it be better if the cops could let fly without the deadly consequences? In steps Taser International.

A taser is an electroshock weapon that uses electrical currents to disrupt the voluntary control of muscles. This results in what TI (who are great at adding to our besieged vocabulary) call ‘neuromuscular incapacitation’: in other words, you fall to the ground and twitch around and the powers that be can do whatever they want with you. An additional option, if ‘pain compliance’ is required, is for the taser to be switched to Drive Stun Mode. In that case, though, you might end up dead (this has happened to 308 people in the US and 26 in Canada since 2001). TI, though, says that this doesn’t have anything to do with being ‘tasered’ (another great new word) but is rather down to something called ‘excited delirium’. TI and its apologists claim that the delirium hits someone when they are apprehended by the cops and causes them to act in an irrational and hyperactive way. The Canadian Medical Association Journal has dismissed excited delirium as a ‘pop culture phenomenon’.

The most public example of taser death or excited delirium (depending on your diagnosis) was that of Robert Dziekanski, a poor Polish fellow who became disoriented and had to be zapped by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police when he arrived at Vancouver International Airport. Thanks to YouTube, it is possible to see Dziekanski, who spoke no English and had his mother waiting for him beyond the immigration barrier, reeling and twitching as he is zapped again and again by an enthusiastic Mountie. Maybe a good new sales slogan for TI could be ‘Tasers: cheaper than translators’. 

The original inventor of this ‘electromuscular disruption technology’ was one Jack Cover, a researcher for NASA back in the 1970s. Cover got together with Rick Smith (now CEO at TI) and his brother Tom (now Chair of the Board) to set up shop in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Smith Taser Twins can be seen demonstrating their neat yellow and black guns, cowboy style, on TI’s website. Incidentally, the name ‘taser’ came from Jack Cover’s childhood sci-fi superhero Tom Swift (it’s an acronym of Thomas A Swift’s Electric Rifle). But TI’s economic success is no fantasy. Some 11,000 police agencies in 44 countries are now equipped with 428,000 tasers. Tens of thousands more are in the hands of civilians, for ‘personal protection’. The US is one of the few countries where civilian taser ownership is legal. TI’s stocks have remained remarkably buoyant despite the recession.

The idea that tasers save lives by allowing police to keep their guns holstered isn’t holding water either. Deaths from police shootings in most jurisdictions have declined marginally or remained the same. As the Houston Police put it, the tasers can be usefully employed in ‘traffic stops, disturbance and nuisance complaints and reports of suspicious people’. In other words, what we have is a classic case of mission creep, with tasers being used for the most trivial of reasons. In one recent case tasers were used against Antonio Love (who is deaf and has a mental disability) in Mobile, Alabama, after he failed to come out of a store restroom quickly enough. A poor fellow in Utah who wouldn’t sign his traffic ticket was zapped. In Miami, where school police have been equipped, a 5-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl were tasered for skipping school. One 15-year-old boy in Michigan died. You get the idea: it’s the old police desire to show you who is boss. ‘The taser is not the thing that replaces the gun; it’s what replaces all the other things that police might do other than use a gun, like talk to you,’ as former Toronto mayor John Sewell put it.

The opposition to tasers is starting to grow. There have been several lawsuits, many of which TI settled before they came to court. A jury ordered TI to pay $6 million to the family of Robert Heston Jr after he died the day after being tasered repeatedly by police in Salinas, California. The Canadian Broadcasting Company sponsored a study that concluded that shocks from tasers frequently exceeded the strength claimed by TI. The UN Committee Against Torture believes that the extreme pain from the TaserX26 constitutes a form of torture. Civil liberty groups, concerned about the use of tasers against global justice demonstrators in Switzerland, France, Germany and the US, have also rung alarm bells.

But the Smith boys and TI remain as bellicose as ever. According to Tom Smith, UN concern about torture just proves ‘they are out of touch with the needs of modern policing’. Indeed, TI is hard at work on a second generation of shock weapons, including ones that shoot from a greater distance (the XREP) and affect more people. This latter phenomenon, quaintly referred to as ‘area denial’, is advertised in TI’s promotional pamphlet Shock Wave: ‘What if you could drop everyone in a whole area to the ground with the simple push of a button?’ Don’t you feel more secure already? The US Department of Defense is getting in on the action with a Pain Ray called the Active Denial System (ADS), created by the Raytheon Corporation for crowd control in places like Iraq. Tasers may mean security for the authorities, but they fall pretty short on civility and democracy for the rest of us.

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