The History of the Taser Shows Tech Can’t Fix Policing
Fifty years after development began, the supposedly nonlethal Taser has failed to reduce the use of firearms by police
You hear a click, like the sound of a pencil being snapped. That click — and the searing pain that accompanies it — are nearly instantaneous, but your mind tricks you into thinking that there’s a distinct period between them.
When a Taser shock hits you, no matter how much you expect it, it comes as a surprise — a literal shock, like a baseball bat swung hard and squarely into the small of your back. That sensation, which is actually two sharp steel barbs piercing your skin and shooting electricity into your central nervous system, is followed by the harshest, most violent spasm you can imagine coursing through your entire body. With the pain comes the terrifying awareness that you are completely helpless. You lose control of almost everything, and the only place you can go is down, face first to the floor.
The whole thing lasts five seconds — but it feels like an eternity.
I had just spent several hours interviewing employees in the Scottsdale, Arizona, headquarters of the wildly successful, publicly traded company that makes Tasers, and the company’s main press officer asked me if I’d like to take a spin. For whatever reason, I voluntarily subjected myself to being shocked by the company’s signature product.
As soon as it was over, I began to ask myself for the first time: Is a weapon this powerful really necessary for police to do their work safely? Many cops would say yes, of course: The purpose of Tasers is to disable and immobilize unruly suspects without shooting them. Tasers give police another option that is less likely to kill someone than a gun. Tasers make police safer.
But the deeper I looked into the history and use of Tasers, the flimsier this reasoning seemed.
A physicist and business executive named Jack Cover invented the Taser in the late 1960s after reading newspaper stories about police officer–involved killings, as well as a piece in the Los Angeles Times describing a man being subdued by an electric fence. That was Cover’s inspiration, in fact — an electric fence that could be shot out of a firearm, rather than bullets. Cover was so confident in his idea that he quit his high-paying job as an airline executive to develop his product.
First dubbed the TSER (named after his favorite young adult novella, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle), Cover later added an extra A to the acronym for the sake of pronunciation. The product wasn’t an immediate success. It took more than a decade of marketing before Cover landed his first major account, selling a couple hundred Tasers to the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980.
LAPD brass were looking for a way to prevent police-involved killings after the death of Eula Love. Police officers shot and killed the 39-year-old mother in 1979 after she brandished a kitchen knife in a police altercation over unpaid bills. The killing sparked protests around the city, and politicians and citizens alike were eager to find a nonlethal alternative to firearms. They believed they found it in the Taser.
But it didn’t exactly work out that way, for two reasons.
First, officers latched onto Tasers not in place of firearms, but as an alternative to bodily contact. The hallucinogenic drug PCP was at an apex around the time Tasers were introduced, and while the drug’s users wouldn’t usually put cops in mortal danger, they would occasionally overheat, strip nude, and generally need to be detained. Cops wanted some kind of tool that would allow them to subdue folks high on PCP without having to lay hands on them. The Taser did the trick.
These technologies have turned out to be expensive stopgaps that give the police a sheen of forward-thinking pragmatism.
But cops weren’t about to bring a Taser to a gunfight—or, for that matter, a knife fight. They were primarily interested in them for circumstances where hand-to-hand combat wouldn’t really give them the upper hand against a suspect. As a result, Tasers weren’t doing much to reduce shootings.
And Tasers themselves did not prove to be as nonlethal as promised. Cover himself admitted as much nearly from the beginning, writing in 1975 that there “is no weapon, technique, or procedure for subduing, constraining, or dispersing that does not involve some risk of injury to healthy persons or of death, especially if the individual has a heart ailment.”
Cover was never able to bring his invention into the mainstream on his own, even after the LAPD deal. But a pair of brothers from Scottsdale, Arizona, named Rick and Tom Smith, did. After working with Cover to update his design, they sold the Taser and modifications of it to nearly every one of the country’s 18,000 police departments. The Smiths eschewed Cover’s admission about Tasers being potentially lethal and instead branded them as “nonlethal” weapons without hesitation.
That myth and the theory that Tasers would reduce firearms use would both be disproven. By 2019, the website Truth… Not Tasers had become the world’s main repository of reported Taser-involved deaths in the absence of any government agency taking the role. That site has counted more than 1,000 deaths that followed suspects being Tasered. And after studying 36,112 use-of-force incidents, University of Chicago researchers determined in 2018 that Tasers do not reduce police use of firearms — at all. Published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the study tracked Taser use by the Chicago Police Department between 2010 and 2018 and found that use of firearms did not change over that eight-year period.
So the Taser failed at its two principal functions — to provide a nonlethal alternative to firearms and to reduce the use of firearms in general. Yet police departments across the country still spend millions of dollars on them. The Smith brothers now control a company called Axon Enterprise that holds a virtual monopoly on Taser production and has a market cap of $2.76 billion. And police-community relations are as bad as ever.
Tasers are just one of many examples in which police put their faith in technology, expecting it to solve the massive, seemingly intractable problems inherent to their work. We’ve seen this same kind of blind optimism concerning body cameras, Compstat, predictive policing, cellphone trackers, and even surveillance cameras. Leaving aside the important privacy concerns that have been raised about some of these technologies, in many cases they simply don’t do what they’re supposed to do. More often than not, the technologies have turned out to be expensive stopgaps that give the police a sheen of forward-thinking pragmatism while in fact steering them away from the kinds of fundamental reforms that could make a real difference on the ground.
Technology can be useful, of course; there are circumstances in which Tasers have helped to deescalate confrontations, in which body cameras have helped to clarify details of tense interactions, in which data have helped to better target crime hot spots. But an overreliance on these technologies overlooks the real issues.
When people protest officer-involved shootings, they are protesting serious, deeply entrenched problems: the leniency given to officers who instigate violence, the disparity in arrest rates between blacks and whites, the overpolicing of the poor, and the lack of transparency in any situation deemed by prosecutors to involve potential investigative evidence. In essence, they protest injustice — and injustice is a problem that technology will never be able to solve.