Matt Stroud is a freelance journalist who often writes about the business of policing and incarceration.
A new documentary explores the rise of Taser International.
When a U.S. police officer uses a Taser weapon, it's almost guaranteed to be a product of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company Taser International. That might seem obvious. But Taser's dominance wasn't always a foregone conclusion, according to the filmmaker Nick Berardini.
In the new documentary Killing Them Safely, Berardini argues that Tasers—the stun–gun-like weapons known as electronic control devices or ECDs, which can shoot 50,000 volts of electricity up to 30 feet—are clearly capable of killing in some circumstances. He also argues that Taser International's executives created a booming business by marketing them to police departments as non-lethal weapons that were incapable of causing significant injury.
"These guys are tough businessmen," Berardini tells CityLab, referring to Taser's founders, brothers Rick and Tom Smith, and their father, Phillips. "It's a cliché, but they really stopped at nothing to get where they got."
Where Taser got is onto the duty belts of officers in about 90 percent of law enforcement agencies in the United States. And when it comes to police ECDs, Taser has zero competitors. Getting there involved a combination of persistence and savvy.
When Taser International was founded in 1993, the ECD had already been around for 23 years; its inventor, the former NASA scientist Jack Cover, filed the initial patent for "Tom Swift's Electric Rifle" in 1970. Cops started using the weapons in 1980, when the Los Angeles Police Department first rolled them out for testing. Famously, two shocks from a Taser produced by Tasertron, an early leader in the Taser market, failed to subdue Rodney King on March 3, 1991—which lead to one of the most notorious police interactions in U.S. history.
Between 1993 and 2001, the then-upstart Taser International lost millions of dollars in its pursuit to produce a competitor to Tasertron, Berardini explains. (The company's May 2001 prospectus admits it had accumulated overall deficits of $6.8 million by that time.) But Taser International innovated in three significant ways that sent sales into the stratosphere—eventually coming to dominate the marketplace.
One of those innovations, Berardini says, revolved around paying cops a per-session fee to train other cops to use Tasers.
"These turn into police-conducted sales pitches," Berardini says. "Law enforcement officers had more authority than salespeople with no police experience. It created a trust factor that its competitors couldn't match."
That trust earned the company net sales of about $24.5 million in 2003, according to earnings reports, allowing it to buy out Tasertron—and Tasertron's patents—for just $1 million. The next year, its net sales nearly tripled to almost $68 million. Going forward, Taser International fought tooth-and-nail to fend off competitors: While companies occasionally emerged trying to construct a better Taser weapon, Taser International protected its patents with authority; it sued one of its competitors out of business twice.
But the big innovation, Berardini says, was creating a Taser weapon that could virtually guarantee that cops could take down any suspect. It began with the powerful M26 weapon in 1999, followed by the smaller X26, and most recently with the X26P and X2 devices. Each subsequent increase in power has been popular with law enforcement, but Taser International also made weapons that had the potential to be deadly in some situations, Berardini says. (While official statistics are not tracked, unofficial counts put the total tally of people killed in the U.S. after being shocked with Taser weapons at more than 900 by the beginning of 2015.)
"Once [Taser International's executives] had that market cornered, they understood that the only way to survive was to project absolute strength, and so they aggressively attacked both critics questioning their overzealous marketing and safety statements, but also new competitors who might enter the market with a safer or more effective Taser," Berardini says.
Steve Tuttle, Taser International's longtime spokesman, sees things differently.
“Taser technology is the most extensively researched less-lethal modern weapon ever developed, with more than 500 field and medical studies to date—78 percent are independent of Taser International," he tells CityLab.
As for the company's tactics to corner the ECD market, he says Berardini is exaggerating the company's savviness.
“Using active-duty law enforcement to conduct police training is an industry standard established well before Taser began," Tuttle says. "It’s industry standard that off-duty officers do training as they are the best equipped to have their primary motivation as officer safety and as such keeps an arm’s length away from the manufacturers.”
Industry standard or not, Taser's done something right. The company's net sales are nearly triple what they were in 2004. And while Tuttle calls Berardini's film "a highly biased and inflammatory project," there's one thing he doesn't disagree with: When a U.S. police officer uses a Taser weapon, it's guaranteed to be a product of Taser International.