Amid debates on America’s policing methods, Nick Berardini‘s debut feature “Killing them Safely” explains how two brothers revolutionised law enforcement by building the world’s largest Taser manufacturer, arming and training America’s police, and becoming millionaires in the process.
Startling archival footage accompanies candid interviews with cardiologists, lawyers, police officers, politicians, families who lost a loved one from a deployed Taser, and a spokesperson from Taser International.
Rick and Tom Smith founded Taser International in 1993 and have sold their stun gun to almost all of the US’ 18,250 law-enforcement agencies (only about 450 police departments do not deploy the Taser), according to the company.
As the film progresses, these seemingly innocuous figures appear more and more sinister as we see them jump through hoops to avoid taking responsibility for the potential harm their product inflicts.
The film makes a salient point when it juxtaposes the Smith brothers’ apathetic depositions and the upsetting police dash-cam footage showing the death of Stanley Harlan.
Harlan, 23, died after he was stunned for 31 seconds outside of his home in Moberly, Missouri.
In 2008, Harlan was pulled over by officers for suspicion of either speeding or drunken driving (the reason remains unclear). Harlan appeared to cooperate with police, but within seconds multiple cops grabbed him and walked him off camera. He was then stunned three times and entered cardiac arrest, according to a police handout obtained by CBS News.
Moments later, Harlan’s body was dragged back into view of the dash cam. Officers attempted to wake him up during the next 14 minutes, but it was too late. Harlan died of cardiac arrest in front of his home and his screaming parents.
“That seemed so aggressive to me and such an obvious misuse of force that I became really sympathetic towards the family,” said Berardini, who at the time of Harlan’s death was 24 years old and aspiring to be a filmmaker.
Still, the Smith brothers contend in the film that the Taser is perfectly safe and simply cannot do any serious harm.
In their depositions, as well as in a Canadian Parliament hearing on the matter, the brothers assuredly deny all assertions their product can kill.
When asked about a specific instance involving a death by Taser, Rick Smith responds, “What I’m saying is that to the best of our knowledge it does not appear that the direct electric effects of the Taser would be the most likely cause of the cardiac arrest.”
Rick’s brother echoes this later on: “In terms of the studies that have been done we have not seen anything conclusively that has come back scientifically that has said a Taser has killed.”
According to the company’s running tally, of the more than 2.7 million Taser deployments, about 141,000 lives have been saved.
In 2009, however, Taser International updated its training procedures to include that officers should not aim for the chest.
After issuing the update, the company scheduled a nationwide call, featured in the film, with its police-department clients to explain the need for the adjustment. Then-CEO Rick Smith is heard on the call telling officers: “Are chest hits with a Taser dangerous? The answer to that is definitively no.”
There are a few other unfathomable moments in the film that truly have to be seen to be believed. “Killing them Safely” highlights the ineptitude not only of Taser International but also of the governing bodies and police departments that have allowed this organisation to essentially have a monopoly over the training and safety of the device.
“Killing them Safely” is a painstakingly researched and compelling film that demands to be seen. It’s bigger than some true-crime story that affects the lives of a handful of people — the horrors brought to light in this film have an effect on every American citizen.
Here is the trailer for “Killing them Safely“:
Killing them Safely opens at IFC Center in New York, for tickets and showtimes please click here.
Brett Arnold contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Brett Arnold and Amanda Macias are former classmates of the filmmakers.
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