“Shock To the System,” by Dana Goodyear. The New Yorker, 8/27/2018.
The Taser, or more broadly, a stun gun, or even more broadly, a conducted-energy weapon, was developed to make the police bullet obsolete. Back in earlier days, a police officer often had only the option to shoot an uncooperative perp—now seen as an outdated, terrible thing to do.
The Taser was patented in 1974 by an Arizona aerospace engineer, Tom Cover, who was inspired by the book, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. Cover’s early products were similar to today’s Taser: a pistol-shaped gun that sent out two wires ending in barbed darts that delivered a 50,000 volt shock. But there were two problems: the darts were propelled by a small explosive that put it under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They classified it as a Title II weapon, the same as a sawed-off shotgun, that required a formidable registration procedure. And, although the 50,000 volts caused considerable pain, the incompasitation could be overcome.
Then, along came Rick Smith, 23, a Harvard graduate, looking to start a new company. He visited Cover and, together, they spent 6 months in Cover’s garage building new prototypes while older brother, Tom Smith, set up an office in Scottsdale. The new prototype used compressed air to fire the darts, taking it out of the jurisdiction of the ATF, and tweaked the voltage to cause muscles to contract 19 times a second, locking them up rather than just causing excruciating pain. It was called the Air Taser. At first, it only sold in Sharper Image stores, but a sleeker, new model soon caught on with police departments. It did not replace the gun, but added to the options. The beauty was that the suspect could stand up again in 5 minutes, now cuffed, but more or less unscathed. The new model, the X26, became almost ubiquitous in police departments between 2000 and 2005, spreading faster than police radios.
In 2013, brother Tom left the company. Rick said, “We never really got along. . . . We’re polar opposites.” The name of the company was also changed from Taser International to Axon Enterprise. (Axon is the long conductive thread emerging from a nerve cell.)
But the virtues of the Taser brought criticism of its use: a device that causes considerable pain but leaves no trace is an ideal torture weapon. Amnesty International described them as a “routine force option” commonly deployed against “unruly school children, unarmed mentally disturbed or intoxicated individuals; suspects fleeing minor crime scenes, and people who argue with police or who fail to comply immediately with a command.”
Tasers now have a data port to track each trigger pull (that sends out another charge), but a report on the Baltimore Police Department showed nearly 60% of those Tased between 2012 and 2014 were “non-threatening (but non-compliant).”
The company, Axon, has now gone into supplying body cameras. The data ports on the Tasers insured no one could claim taking more hits than actually occurred, but many would claim their hands were raised and they were non-threatening. Photos taken by individuals’ phone cameras often provided important evidence, so police body cameras were a natural next step. The problem is the huge amount of data collected, about 2 petabytes per month (1 petabyte = 1000 terabytes) in Seattle alone. Companies are working on face-recognition and A.I. software to wade through all of this data.
Minority groups are wary of the new developments. Many activists now say minority communities need additional social support more than “souped-up robo-cops.”