Magazine article Newsweek

No. 1 Stunner: Documentary 'Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle' Shows the Dangers of Tasers; Nick Berardini's Documentary about Taser International Gives an Inside Look at the Dangers of the Electronic Control Weapon

Magazine article Newsweek

No. 1 Stunner: Documentary 'Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle' Shows the Dangers of Tasers; Nick Berardini's Documentary about Taser International Gives an Inside Look at the Dangers of the Electronic Control Weapon

Article excerpt

Byline: Stuart Miller

For its first 15 minutes, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, Nick Berardini's documentary about Taser International, is a classic all-American success tale: It recounts the origin story of Rick and Tom Smith, ambitious brothers who adapted ineffective stun-gun technology to revolutionize policing while earning millions of dollars.

Then the tone changes. Berardini shows the Smiths talking about the dangers of the Taser, the electronic control weapon Amnesty International says contributed to 540 deaths between 2001 and 2013. "My film speaks to our inclination to find an easy solution to a complicated problem," says Berardini, whose documentary had its world premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. "But militarizing the police desensitized them and changed the way they handle use-of-force incidents."

He stumbled upon the story while working as a student reporter at the University of Missouri in 2008, covering the death of 23-year-old Stanley Harlan, who was pulled over across the street from his home in Moberly, Missouri, for going 38 mph in a 35 mph zone. Harlan was inexplicably Tased by the police for 31 seconds and died, in front of his mother. Berardini initially planned a documentary on how this incident divided the town, but after a special prosecutor dropped the charges after concluding that the police training did not indicate repeated Tasings could be lethal, he decided to focus on those who had provided the training: the Smith brothers and Taser International.

"They were saying no one could ever die from a Taser," Berardini says. "It certainly has killed people.-- So I set out to make a movie about their journey and their successes and the collateral damage.-- I want police officers to see this so they are aware of the consequences of using a Taser."

Taser Vice President Steve Tuttle has not seen the movie, but argues that the weapon is a vast improvement over pain-compliance tools used by the police, like choke-holds, batons and pepper spray--the discomfort from which can last an hour, while a Taser shot lasts five to eight seconds. "It is also safer for the officer than tackling someone to the ground, and the police have saved money in worker's compensation," Tuttle says. "We never said the Taser is risk-free. Nick is painting us to be uncaring souls, but we are on a noble mission."

Justin Mazzola, a researcher at Amnesty International, says approximately 40 people die each year from incidents involving Taser abuse--shots lasting longer than the recommended time--and argues the weapon needs more rigorous testing.

The movie is also about what Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York police officer and assistant district attorney who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, calls "the big industrial-police complex," where weapons are sold to departments before guidelines and testing have been done by them.

Tom Swift reveals this through disturbing footage, like a 2007 incident at the Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia in which a disoriented Polish man was surrounded by four policemen who make no effort to find a nonviolent solution, instead stunning him repeatedly after he is on the ground with officers on top of him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The film juxtaposes such scenes with one in which Rick Smith says, "In every single case, these people would have died anyway." Or another in which Tom Smith declares the company never said the weapon was risk-free, only to be contradicted by its promotional materials. The movie also presents evidence that the company was warned about risks by its scientists in 2006. In 2009, Taser finally changed its policy and recommended officers not fire at the chest, yet the film shows a nationwide call with its police department clients in which Rick Smith undercuts that by saying, "Are chest hits with a Taser dangerous? …

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