A new documentary blows the lid off the shady underpinning of the TASER industry

Taser brightenedChristopher Furlong/Getty ImagesTASER International trains Master instructors with devices such as the X26 stun gun (pictured). Those instructors then train police in departments around the country.

You won’t find a more timely and relevant film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival than “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.”

Nick Berardini‘s debut feature explains how two brothers built the world’s largest TASER manufacturer, armed and help train most of America’s police departments, and became multimillionaires in the process.

Rick and Tom Smith founded TASER International in 1993 and have sold their device to almost all of the
US’s 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.

Smith brothersCourtesy of Nick BerardiniFounders of TASER International Rick Smith (left) and Tom Smith (right).

The film makes a salient point when it juxtaposes of the Smith brothers’ apathetic depositions and the upsetting police dash-cam footage showing the death ofStanley Harlan. The 23-year-old diedafter he was stunned for a total of 31 seconds outside of his home.

In 2008, Harlan was pulled over by officers from the Moberly Missouri police department for an either speeding or drunk driving — the reason remains unclear. Harlan appears to cooperate with police and within seconds multiple cops grab him and walk him off camera. He is then stunned three times and slips into cardiac arrest, according to a police handout obtained by CBS News.

Moments later, Harlan’s body is dragged back into the dash cam’s view. For the next 14 minutes, officers attempt to wake him up, but it’s too late. Harlan died from cardiac arrest in front of his home and his screaming parents.

Stanley3Courtesy of Nick BeradiniScreen grab of dash-cam footage from the Moberly police department showing an officer with Stanley Harlan.

Still, the Smith brothers contend in the film that the TASER is perfectly safe and simply cannot do any serious harm to an individual. In their depositions, as well as a Canadian Parliament hearing on the matter, the Smith brothers assuredly deny all assertions that 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 [Harlan’s] cardiac arrest.”

Rick’s brother echoes this later on, stating, “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.”

In fact, of the 2,741,934 TASER deployments, approximately 141,198 lives have been saved, according to the company’s running tally.

In 2009, however, TASER International updated its training procedures to include that officers should not aim for the chest.

Taser updateCourtesy of Nick BerardiniThe updated TASER targeting guide issued by TASER International.

After issuing the update, the company scheduled a nationwide call, featured in film, with their 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 unfatomable moments in the film that it truly has to be seen to be believed. “Tom Swift” highlights the ineptitude of not only TASER International, but also the governing bodies and police departments that have allowed this organisation essentially have a monopoly over the training and safety of the device.

“Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle” is a painstakingly researched and compelling film that demands to be heard. It’s bigger than some true crime story that affects the lives of a handful of people — the horrors brought to light in the film have an effect on every American citizen.

“Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle” is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday April 21st and Sunday April 26th. Tickets are available here.

Disclosure: Brett Arnold and Amanda Macias are former classmates of the filmmakers.

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