Taser’s Response: They’re Just Plane Crashes

In a fascinating and thorough exploration of the Taser phenomenon, via our hinterlands correspondent Kathleen, Scott Thill at Alternet not only runs through the ever-increasing saga of abuse and death at the end of an electrode, but gets an executive, and one of the founders of Taser International, to spill his guts.

“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.”

That Tuttle immediately reacts with the “not my job” defense is hardly surprising.  And indeed, has some merit when viewed in light of the manner in which cops use Tasers in lieu of thinking.  After all, it’s just so much easier to tase someone than talk to them.  But it hardly covers all manner of problems arising from the proliferation of Tasers.

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.

There’s been little written about cops harmed during Taser training, though plenty about how cops shrug it off as if it’s nothing.  It’s not that Tasers don’t will a gap in the resources available to law enforcement; Indeed, it’s a far better tool than putting a bullet between a suspect’s eyes when force is required.

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.
However, the promotion of the Taser from the outset, emphasizing it’s harmlessness, coupled with its use in mass media to suggest that it’s a marvel of modern technology, that has elevated the Taser from a dangerous weapon to cult status.

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.

“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.

Ask your kids what they think of Tasers, and don’t be surprised if they tell it’s “coo-ooo-oool!”  Seriously, if Batman uses one, it must be cool. 

“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 armed 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.
The problem, ultimately, is that the Taser is already ubiquitous (except in Memphis), already a part of our pop culture, and already in the hands of poorly trained police officers and departments lacking appropriate use-of-Taser policies that recognize that these are not harmless devices, particularly when deployed with as little thought and concern as the dumbest or laziest cop on the street might exercise. 

In the old days, the question posed was whether one would give a loaded gun to a child.  The new question is whether one would give a charged Taser to an untrained cop.  The results speak for themselves.  Bad consequences are always just “plane crashes,” unless you happen to be the guy on the plane.