There’s nothing quite like gung-ho businessmen or driven product liability lawyers, and director Nick Berardini’s documentary about Taser-related deaths has no shortage of either. Berardini makes sure it’s time well spent as he unspools how Taser International figured out how to monetize Jack Cover’s 1970 invention, an electrical weapon designed to cut down on lethal force by law enforcement.
If that sounds like something North America needs, you might appreciate the founders’ apparently genuine desire to make that happen. Brothers Rick and Tom Smith started their company in 1991, alarmed when two friends were killed in a road rage incident. They saw Tasers as a way for the police to stop enraged citizens without harm. The trouble came, though, as the brothers perfected the weapons — and ignored the science, and the incidents, that undermined their guarantees of safety.
The film’s focus is on the few incidents where Taser use turned deadly. It isn’t much consolation that poor training and police overreach are likely contributors to Taser deaths. The training, for one thing, is provided by the company, along with blanket assurances that Tasers can’t be deadly.
It’s the lawyers and Canadian politicians, in the end, who unearth medical evidence of how Tasers do indeed kill, including studies in the company’s possession. Footage of the now-wealthy Smiths being deposed is damning, the brothers’ legal jiujitsu is appalling, and the stories of deaths are heartbreaking. A few police departments have ditched the devices without increasing their use of guns. That’s a relief, but it’s unclear how aware police in general are of the danger. The company is now marketing body cameras, which might come in handy the next time a Taser kills someone.
Killing Them Safely
Directed by Nick Berardini
Opens November 27, IFC Center
Available on demand