“They Have Blood On Their Hands”: How Non-Lethal Weapons Kill Hundreds

Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images.
After a slew of police killings of young Black men this year, there has been debate surrounding the use of excessive and deadly force by police. In the aftermath of a death, observers often question whether police had even considered the use of non-lethal weapons, like a Taser, instead of a gun. But how deadly can supposedly non-lethal weapons really be? In mid-November, a horrifying video was released of a man who died in police custody in 2013. The video shows the handcuffed man, Linwood Lambert, being tased by two officers simultaneously, after he flees a police car. He was then placed back in the police car and taken to the station, where he was found unresponsive. Lambert was declared dead at a nearby hospital. Later reports showed that he may have been tased up to 20 times. Lambert isn’t the only person who has been killed after an incident with a Taser. In Canada, the horrific death of a confused Polish immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, was caught on video. Dziekanski, who spoke no English, was confused and frustrated by a misunderstanding over airport regulations. When his frustration turned to anger, police tased him five times. And in the U.S., the death of 23-year-old Stanley Harlan, who died in front of his parents after being tased once during a traffic stop, was caught on a dashcam video. In the video, his mother’s screams are audible. Filmmaker Nick Berardini thinks that these deaths are far from isolated incidents. His new documentary, Killing Them Safely, incorporates video from all of these Taser-related deaths, and a few more, as evidence that Tasers are far from the non-lethal weapon that the parent company, Taser International, promotes them as. Refinery29 spoke to Berardini about his film and the deadly realities behind non-lethal force. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. What prompted you to make the documentary in the first place?
"The movie started with what happened to Stanley Harlan. Stanley Harlan is the young man who died in front of his mom and stepfather in Moberly, Missouri. I was a student at the University of Missouri, starting my senior year of college, that August that he died. And I was coincidentally was just working a reporting shift at the NBC affiliate in Columbia [and was the first reporter on the scene]." "I was driven by this question of not just what happened to him, but why did this happen to him? It was my first real experience as a 22-year-old at the time, of what is the value of human life. What does it really mean to have empathy, and what are the consequences for people who suffer in something like this. And what became fascinating was not just the consequences for Stanley and his family, but the consequences for the police. And so I began making this film about the way that this small town was trying to overcome what had happened to Stanley Harlan, and really humanize it in a different way. And that exploration really drove me to understand all the key factors. And that led to Taser International."

Are they evil? No. But they do have blood on their hands.

You portray the Taser company as starting with genuinely good intentions and then sort of failing. Do you think the Taser company as a whole has become a sort of “evil” company, more concerned with profits than human life?
"In the context of the broader issue, it’s important to understand that the weapons are so expensive that no departments would buy them unless they could use them in situations like the one that killed Stanley Harlan. [If they can’t use them in those situations], the weapons would become niche weapons, and they wouldn’t justify the mass expense that departments in cities spend on buying them for every officer." "The company consciously chose to mislead the public by saying that it is an alternative to deadly force. So that the public would assume that when someone died like Stanley Harlan, that they must have played some role in their own death, while at the same time telling police officers that the weapons are perfectly safe, so you can use them in a wide variety of contexts. Not just the ones that make the most sense, not just the high-risk scenarios. That’s how they are resetting their own moral standard as a way to say, okay, some people are going to die, but we’re still an essential part of what law enforcement does. The scary thing about that is that they’re for some reason the most credible voice in saying that, even though they have the most to lose." "Are they evil? No. But they do have blood on their hands. They are complicit in the collateral damage, because the collateral damage in a very perverse way is necessary to their survival."
You mention the idea of the moral compass, and the idea that we always want to feel we’re in the right. In the film, the police officers you talk to continuously say, “We didn’t know, we were told it was safe. We didn’t know it would kill people.” It just seems to defy common sense. How much of the police approach is wishful thinking?
"I hope that most people, when they watch the film, [see that] although we are sympathetic to police, they still have culpability. We still want to say police departments were naive. They jumped in headfirst, and despite the mass amount of public strife we’ve had with these weapons, they still continue to trust the company’s singular message in a lot of departments. The ones that don’t trust that message anymore unfortunately don’t trust it oftentimes, because they’ve had their own bad results." "[Taser International] as a weapons manufacturer is a war profiteer. It’s in their interests to convince police departments that the company is on the side of police departments, and the community is only out there trying to question everything they do. And a lot of officers, that connects with them personally because a lot them feel like the community really doesn’t understand their job. And instead of trying to deepen the divide that exists between police departments and the community they serve, what we need to be doing is having more dialogue in those communities, and kicking Taser International out of that dialogue." Taser International has done everything they can to avoid saying the weapon is dangerous in their safety warnings. At what point do they have to buckle and say, okay, it’s unsafe?
"They won’t have to. And that’s the brilliance — or the evil genius —way that they do the training. They have consistently, each time they’ve added something to this training, given the caveats of, 'The only reason we’re doing this is because greedy lawyers want to sue us and they want to sue you.' From a practical perspective, I understand why they don’t want to recommend time restrictions for departments writing their own policies, and why they distance themselves from the policies. They don’t want to lump themselves in with officers who then would go out and misuse the weapon." "But what is nefarious, what is malicious about it, is basically refusing to acknowledge in training that the warnings are there for a reason. A real reason, which is that in certain scenarios, people can be injured or killed. They’re so flippant about that, that for the officers it deepens the emotional connection that they have to the company. They basically do whatever they can to cover themselves in the warnings and in the liability now while at the same time being flippant about those warnings. Which puts all the liability on the police department. These officers don’t even realize the trick that’s been played on them." Do you think that Tasers can be made more safe, or do we need to just accept that there is probably no such thing as a ‘safe’ weapon that can incapacitate someone without causing them harm?
"I am not a use of force expert, and I didn’t want to make a film that was strictly a use of force debate about how to use these weapons. In a lot of ways, it minimizes the broader issues at play. For one, our societal inclination to just assume that technology will solve all of our complicated problems. They offered this very simple solution to a very complicated problem of police brutality, and revolutionized how officers did their jobs, without ever considering the hypothetical downside of doing that. I didn’t want to then offer a solution that said, well, take all these Tasers off the streets, because for 15 years, this has been the go-to weapon for police officers. If they are, overnight, retrained on how to do something differently, then it could have its own subset of dangerous hypotheticals. So that would be mirroring the mistake the company made." "There’s not, unfortunately, a very simple solution to what to do about Tasers and how to use them, other than making officers aware of the real consequences of the weapon and the decisions that the executives of the company made. That is what we can do, just get everybody on the same page about who and what they’re dealing with." As long as police departments are using these weapons, what is the best way to ensure safety?
"Number one, the regulatory system is all backwards for Tasers. We specifically don’t try to regulate businesses that are making more or less normal products, because we want to inspire ingenuity. Most people are making toys and stuff, they’re not making electric weapons. The problem is that Taser falls under that umbrella. It’s the only thing of its category, an electric weapons that isn’t really considered a weapon. And nobody can really test it, so nobody really knows what limits or standards to put on it." "What that means is that in order to change the behavior somebody’s going to die, or somebody’s going to get hurt. And then a department or the company itself— this is why they started the warnings— is going to get sued. Maybe they lose, but that person is still hurt or dead." "The best way to fix that element of it is to remove the connective tissue between officers who are paid by Taser International to train other officers. That the company has such control over its message in training is dangerous. You can do that by having good citizen review boards, and by having other experts in use of force policy and other experts who can explain, here’s the independent party version of understanding what you’re dealing with. Because the company, again, is a weapons manufacturer. They have a vested interest in encouraging use." Killing Them Safely opens November 27 in theaters and On Demand.

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