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Dec 7, 2019

When Tasers fail

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode originally was broadcast May 11, 2019.

Tasers are on the duty belt of nearly every American police officer. Their manufacturer, Axon Enterprise Inc., has long promoted the device as extremely effective at helping police resolve dangerous situations without using their guns.

But a yearlong investigation by APM Reports shows Tasers often are less effective than the company has claimed. And just as Tasers can save lives when they subdue suspects, when they don’t, the outcome can be deadly.

In Vermont, we explore what happened when police using Tasers failed to subdue a mentally ill man. We trace the history of the Taser and how changes to its design over the years may have reduced its effectiveness in some circumstances. We visit Axon Academy Bootcamp in Fort Worth, Texas. And we talk with police officials in Southern California, where the Taser first was developed.

Dig Deeper

Read: When Tasers Fail – APM Reports

Credits

This week’s show was produced in collaboration with APM Reports, the investigative and documentary team at American Public Media. The show was reported and produced by Curtis Gilbert and edited by Catherine Winter. 

Special thanks to APM’s Angela Caputo, Geoff Hing, Dave Mann and Chris Worthington. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. We also had help from Reveal’s Najib Aminy, Amy Mostafa, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery and Kevin Sullivan.

Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. Flute performance by Jenny Berggren. Our host is Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This video has been viewed more than 7 million times on Facebook. It's the band One Republic performing live at a private party in Orlando last year. On a screen behind the band flashes a series of videos, highlighting the heroism of police officers administering CPR, arresting bad guys, rescuing a drowning dog and all ending with the message, God bless blue. A coroner from suburban Chicago recorded the band with his cell phone. He was one of about 2,500 law enforcement officials in the audience. They were in town for a conference. This party was a hot ticket and it was free.

 

Male: All right, our program is going to begin in just a few more minutes. Please grab a drink from the bar.

 

Al Letson: When Rick Smith takes the stage, he gets a rockstar reception too.

 

Rick Smith: This is so cool being up here. I'm going to take a selfie so I can share it with you guys.

 

Al Letson: Smith is the CEO of a company called Axon. He flew the party to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Axon makes body cameras, drones, virtual reality simulators, but it's best known for tasers. Almost every law enforcement agency in the country uses them. Cops seem to love them because their electrical pulses have the power to stop dangerous people in their tracks. But the problem is, tasers don't always do that. The police in this audience probably know that. So Smith levels with them.

 

Rick Smith: We know as our technology has gotten better, you come to rely on it more and more. It's really painful for you and for us when it doesn't work, when it doesn't get the job done. That's what keeps us up at night. For the last five or six years, we've had a team of people working really hard because we know we need to do better.

 

Al Letson: That's what he said in 2018. But just three years earlier, he was bragging about how well tasers worked.

 

Rick Smith: 80-95% effective in the field.

 

Al Letson: Axon has claimed that during testing, its tasers were effective 99, even 100% of the time. But, police have found that in the field, they don't work nearly that well. It's not that tasers are malfunctioning, that hardly ever happens, but they often fail to subdue suspects. In some police departments, officers say that happens almost half the time.

 

Al Letson: APM Reports a team of investigative journalists at American Public Media, spent a year looking at what happens when tasers fail. Their correspondent Curtis Gilbert first brought us this story back in May. He begins by taking us to Burlington, Vermont, and before we get started, we should warn you that this story contained some violent scenes and disturbing language.

 

Curtis Gilbert: When Lynn Martin moved to Burlington in 2014, her income was low enough, she qualified for public housing. She was lucky to find an apartment right downtown. It was in a four story brick building built at the turn of the century. It was once a candy factory. The South square apartments cater to senior citizens and people with disabilities, but Lynn soon discovered she was in the minority there. She was one of the few people on her floor not dealing with major mental health problems.

 

Lynn Martin: Five of the people had very significant issues and there were two of us who didn't.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Did you know it was going to be like that when you moved in or did it kind of come as a surprise?

 

Lynn Martin: Well, I was a little startled to find it was quite that high a density in the population. By the way, I had no problems with anybody other than Phil. I just want to be very clear about that.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Phil Grennan lived right across the hall from Lynn, and he suffered from a host of mental health problems, including paranoia and a disorder related to schizophrenia.

 

Lynn Martin: He would talk to the walls, and he started at like 4:00, 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and would quiet finally maybe at 11 o'clock at night and then it would start up again at like 5 o'clock in the morning. It would be like, "Oh, you people know, I'm not going to do that. Stop bothering me. Stop talking to me." He just talked to the walls.

 

Curtis Gilbert: In the winter of 2015, Phil's condition started to get worse. Just about everyone noticed it, his daughter, his psychiatrist, and perhaps most of all the other people in his building. One day, Lynn was sitting in her apartment when she heard Phil out in the hallway, and this time it wasn't the walls he was yelling at, it was one of his neighbors. This next exchange has some pretty offensive language.

 

Lynn Martin: He was getting onto the elevator. She got off and he just let fly on her. I've used the language, you can edit it out if you want, but, "You bitch, you're a retard, blah, blah, blah." I mean, he just really let her have it. This poor woman had issues of her own. She was just devastated and shaking, and very upset.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Lynn reported the incident to the police, and the Burlington Housing Authority, which responded by tucking an eviction notice into his doorframe. Phil was 76 years old. He lived in the subsidized apartment complex for 18 years. His medical records show his paranoia often focused on fears of eviction.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It was March 2016 barely springtime. The overnight temperatures in Vermont still dipped below freezing most nights. Less than a week after he got the eviction notice, Phil was sitting alone in his apartment yelling at the walls again, but this time, Lynn says, he was making threats.

 

Lynn Martin: I heard him say, "I'm going to get them. I'm going to kill him. I'm going to get..." and he was naming people. "I'm going to cut him up. I'm going to gut his stomach." I mean, he was coming out with really very, very alarming stuff. I said, "That's it."

 

Curtis Gilbert: In addition to being Phil's neighbor, Lynn is a licensed mental health counselor. So, she called the treatment center where Phil was a patient. Lynn knew they would notify the police.

 

Lynn Martin: It did cross my mind that I was calling for somebody who was pretty out of the box and threatening people, and the police would come with guns. My awareness was that Phil could end up dead that day. I was fully aware of that, that he was the type of person who could end up being shot by the police.

 

Police: Hey Phil, it's officer Allen with Burlington Police.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Two officers show up at Phil's door, body camera's rolling. They knock a few more times with no response. So, they get the key and open his door.

 

Police: Drop the knife.

 

Police: Drop the knife.

 

Police: Drop the knife right now. Drop the knife.

 

Police: Drop it.

 

Curtis Gilbert: He's standing there with a knife in each hand.

 

Police: Call for backup.

 

Police: 344, we've got a knife-

 

Curtis Gilbert: One officer draws a gun.

 

Police: Drop the knife.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The other draws a taser.

 

Police: Phil, drop it and talk to us.

 

Curtis Gilbert: After nearly two minutes of this, Phil finally speaks.

 

Phil: I'm a lawyer.

 

Police: Okay.

 

Phil: I'm a psychiatrist.

 

Police: Well, tell me more about that. Well put down the knife.

 

Phil: I just gave you stupid son of a bitch. Leave me alone.

 

Police: Put down the knife.

 

Phil: Leave me alone.

 

Police: Put down the knife.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Phil isn't a doctor or a lawyer. He thought about law school and even took the LSAT after graduating from the University of Vermont, but he ended up getting a master's in education instead. Phil taught at the community college level before his mental illness made holding a job impossible, and he was a stay-at-home dad after that. It's clear he's in the midst of a delusion. Phil steps forward to close the door, and one of the officers fires a taser.

 

Police: Taser, taser, taser.

 

Police: [inaudible]

 

Police: No.

 

Curtis Gilbert: In order for a taser to work, a lot has to go right. The weapons fire a pair of barbed darts attached to thin wires. Both darts need to strike their target in order for electricity to flow between them. If even one dart misses, nothing happens. Thick or loose fitting clothing can get in the way of making a complete circuit too, let alone a slamming door. That's what seemed to knock one of the darts off course. It wouldn't be the last time the Burlington Police Department tried to use a taser that night.

 

Brandon Del P.: I was down at the shooting range at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford, when I got a call that we had an emotionally disturbed person barricaded in an apartment on College Street.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Brandon Del Pozo was just seven months into his job as Burlington's Chief of Police. He was 41 at the time, Ivy league educated and media savvy. Del Pozo took the job after spending 18 years at the New York Police Department. He commanded two precincts there and seen his share of police shootings. He could tell the situation with Phil had the potential to turn deadly. So, he jumps in his police cruiser and drives 60 miles north to try to save Phil's life.

 

Brandon Del P.: I was happy to see when I got there that the scene was under control, that they'd roped the door shut, and they were taking their time and they were trying to get him to talk so they could negotiate.

 

Curtis Gilbert: This isn't one of those stories where the police rush in and the situation spirals out of control in a matter of seconds. Far from it. Phil is alone in his apartment, the rope tied around the doorknob means it's impossible for Phil to burst into the hallway and provoke the cops into shooting him. He can't hurt anyone except possibly himself. The police have time on their side, so they wait. They knock on his door.

 

Police: Hey Phil. It's Mike. I haven't gone anywhere. We know that you got a notice, and you've been told that you've been evicted. We have resources that can help you, but I can't help you unless you talk to me.

 

Curtis Gilbert: They call his phone more than a dozen times.

 

Police: Hey Phil, it's Mike. Just give me a call back so we can talk about what's going on. All right?

 

Curtis Gilbert: Phil never answers, never says a word. They don't know if he's still alive in there. Chief Del Pozo wants to see what's going on inside the apartment, but he doesn't want his officers to go in blind.

 

Brandon Del P.: I asked if we had a drill, the police department didn't own a drill. I went home and got a drill, I got a drywall saw, I got the right bits and we cut a few holes in his apartment wall to put a camera in to see what we could see. I can see his kitchen, that's the table and everything. We'll see him. What we saw was nothing. We just saw empty rooms.

 

Curtis Gilbert: So, almost four hours after Phil retreats into his apartment-

 

Brandon Del P.: Well, steady guys.

 

Curtis Gilbert: ... Del Pozo decides it's time to go in.

 

Brandon Del P.: Burlington Police, come out.

 

Curtis Gilbert: They find Phil standing in the shower, hiding behind the curtain. He still has the knives.

 

Police: He's got a knife in his hands.

 

Curtis Gilbert: He still says nothing. He just stands there.

 

Police: Step back a little bit.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The cops use a device called a pepper ball to try to smoke Phil out of the bathroom. It doesn't work on him. It just throws the eight officers in the apartment into fits of coughing.

 

Brandon Del P.: Hey, we're going to avoid the pepper ball from now on.

 

Police: Avoid the pepper ball?

 

Brandon Del P.: Yeah, north to south. Note to self, never use pepper ball again inside closed quarters.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It's time to make a new plan.

 

Brandon Del P.: My Sergeant says, "Listen, we couldn't definitely get up on him, and we have enough staffing here. We have enough equipment. If we could stun him with a taser, we should be able to get in there and to take him into custody."

 

Brandon Del P.: If you get him to tense up, he'll drop the knife. Let's hit him with that.

 

Police: A little bit of both I guess.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Del Pozo is so confident in the plan, he authorizes his Deputy Chief Jan Wright to hold a press conference on the street below.

 

Jan Wright: This housing development right here is made up of a bunch of different people.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Meanwhile, up in the apartment, the cops lineup at the bathroom door.

 

Brandon Del P.: All right, let's move forward guys.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Officer Darwin Ellerman stands at the front of the line. In one hand he holds a shield, in the other, he later tells investigators, is a taser.

 

Police: So, I had my taser out at the ready off safe, started retreat, pushed the curtain open.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Again, Phil says nothing. He stands there clutching his knives, and turns his body toward the officers. At this point. Chief Del Pozo says everything is still under control.

 

Brandon Del P.: The plan stops working the moment they fire the taser.

 

Police: I fired the first cartridge. I think you got a good lock in, because I saw him seize up and shaken a little bit, but he didn't drop the knives, and he's screaming the whole time. I'm not sure which hand he used, but he reached down and he pulled the barbs out himself.

 

Curtis Gilbert: As soon as Phil removes one of the barb darts, he breaks the circuit and electricity stops flowing through his body. Axon executives have portrayed yanking out the darts as unlikely. Here's CEO Rick Smith on cable TV in 2002.

 

Rick Smith: it's like take a computer network, imagine putting that spike of electricity into it, it's going to send everything haywire. We do the same thing inside the human body, so the brain can't tell the arms, legs, and muscles what to do. If you can't move, you can't attack anyone.

 

Bill Weir: What's to stop a perpetrator from breaking those wires off?

 

Rick Smith: The 50,000 volts that's going through his body.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Rick Smith's brother and co-founder Tom Smith, said something similar when ABC's Bill Weir, asked him about it in 2011.

 

Bill Weir: Have you ever seen a test subject able to yank these out?

 

Tom Smith: No.

 

Bill Weir: They can't control their motor functions.

 

Tom Smith: You can't control motor function, right.

 

Curtis Gilbert: But Axons more recent training materials seem to contradict the Smith brothers past claims. A 2016 PowerPoint presentation created by the company notes, people can retain control of their arms and legs even while receiving a taser shock. Chief Del Pozo says that was clearly the case with Phil Grennan.

 

Brandon Del P.: The tasers hurt him enough to make him really angry, and to aggravate his episode and yet did not hurt him enough to incapacitate him.

 

Curtis Gilbert: What happens next unfolds in less than 10 seconds. It takes officer Ellerman longer than that just to describe it to investigators.

 

Police: He immediately steps out of the top and his arms are going nuts, and flying. I don't remember if I said back up. I know someone said, "Get back, get back, get back." He's moving fast. We did not expect him to move that fast.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Out on the street, the deputy chief is still talking to reporters. She's in mid sentence, and the gunshots ring out. The cameras pan up to the open window on the building's second story. They can't see it, but Phil is on the floor dying, bullet holes in his chest, thigh, groin and abdomen. He also has six smaller marks on his body, the kind tasers leave behind. Chief Del Pozo says another one of his officers fired one just a moment before the gunshots.

 

Brandon Del P.: By the time we were done with this encounter, unfortunately the room was just a crisscross mess of taser wires.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Phil's story is like hundreds of others all over the country. Police end up shooting someone after their tasers prove ineffective. APM Reports found more than 250 cases that follow this same plot-line over just a three year period. Tasers failed to resolve the situation, and then police resorted to firearms. In more than a hundred of those cases, people became more aggressive after an officer fired a taser at them. Had the tasers been effective, many of those people might still be alive. In some cases it's obvious why the taser didn't work, because one or both of the electrified darts missed their target. But with many of the shootings, it's much murkier. The darts hit, they just don't do much. The investigators don't spend much time trying to figure out why. They tend to focus on the bullets that proved fatal, not the tasers that proved ineffective. That was the case with Philip Grennan's death too. It's a question that gnawed on Phil's niece, Sarah Grennan.

 

Sarah Grennan: It was eating me alive for a while.

 

Curtis Gilbert: A little less than two months after Phil died, the Burlington Police Department released videos from the cameras officers wore on their uniforms, but it wasn't until the next year that Sarah could bring herself to look at them.

 

Sarah Grennan: I watched it on the anniversary of his death.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Why did you decide to do that?

 

Sarah Grennan: I don't even know what the answer is. I don't even know why I watched it. I guess just to maybe try to figure out why it went so wrong.

 

Curtis Gilbert: That's when she saw how close Phil was when officer Ellerman used his taser.

 

Sarah Grennan: They were face to face.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Ellerman was in the bathroom doorway, Phil was in the shower. Sarah started researching tasers and she discovered it's not enough just for both darts to hit, it also matters how far away the target is. Tasers don't have the same effect on the human body when they're used at too closer range, they still hurt, and sometimes that's enough, but they won't always knock you over. That's because the two taser darts spread apart as they fly. The farther apart they hit, the more effective they become.

 

Sarah Grennan: I think that I had heard that the tasers they were using at the time, you have to be nine feet away.

 

Curtis Gilbert: She's right. The problem is, it's hard for officers to get that kind of distance in a small apartment, or even in a scuffle out on the street. The manufacturer, Axon, acknowledges tasers are typically used at close range. When you look at databases from major police departments that track this stuff, you can see just how close. In New York and Fort worth, Texas for example, officer's report they usually fire their tasers at distances of seven feet or less. They only use them at longer ranges, about a quarter of the time. In other words, most of the time, cops don't use tasers at the ranges where they become reliably effective. So, how far away was Phil to find that out? I needed to get into his building and look at one of the apartments. Are you Cynthia?

 

Cynthia: Yeah.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Hi, Curtis Gilbert.

 

Cynthia: Hi Curtis, call me Cindy.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Cindy, okay I will.

 

Cynthia: Come on in.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Thank you so much. Cindy Callum has lived in this tiny one bedroom apartment for about 18 years. Where should we sit down to visit?

 

Cynthia: You shouldn't feel [inaudible 00:18:17].

 

Curtis Gilbert: She was probably Phil's best friend.

 

Cynthia: I mean, he'd come down and sit in that chair and we'd talk. we had Thanksgiving together every year, and we only had stuffing dressing, because that's all we each like. He was so appreciative, so thankful for it. He was so dear. He would just... I can't say enough about him.

 

Curtis Gilbert: I could tell that Phil's death had really affected Cindy, but I wasn't prepared for what she said next.

 

Cynthia: It was so terrible that I tried to commit suicide four days afterwards, and they told me I was in the hospital for three weeks. I'd never done that before or since, never.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Do you remember making a decision to commit suicide?

 

Cynthia: Oh, absolutely. I wrote everything out for my cousin. For some reason, the loss of Phil and what he went through before his death was so traumatic for me. I just, I couldn't bear up to it.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Had you been inside Phil's apartment before?

 

Cynthia: Many times.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Is it laid out similar to this or is it-

 

Cynthia: No, it isn't. The person who is in his apartment right now is named Steve. He just moved in there a few months ago. He would let you in a minute.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Could you take me up there?

 

Cynthia: Oh, sure.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Should we go see?

 

Cynthia: Sure. Hi Steve.

 

Steve: Hi. How are you?

 

Cynthia: How are you?

 

Curtis Gilbert: Steve Wacklowic is 66 and lives with a little dog named Thor.

 

Steve: This is Thor.

 

Curtis Gilbert: He has no problem showing me his bathroom. He points to a mark on the shower tile he thinks it might've been caused by a bullet.

 

Steve: This is the interesting thing.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Then, he lets me take some measurements with my phone under the watchful eye of Thor. The place is tiny. The whole apartment measures less than 500 square feet. The bathroom is a bit shy of four feet by seven feet.

 

Curtis Gilbert: According to this app on my phone, Phil might've been only three, maybe four feet away from the officer when he tased him, and could not have been more than say six feet or so away. So, I think that could have been a big factor in why the taser didn't work on Phil.

 

Al Letson: We asked Axon to talk to us. They initially agree, but then canceled the interview. The company didn't respond to our questions about the connection between tasers and fatal shootings by police. They sent us a statement saying, "Research shows tasers are the most safe and effective, less lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement." After the break, Axon fights lawsuits from police officers.

 

Andy Vickery: All she knew is the taser didn't work, and didn't know why, and frankly we didn't know why. Then, lo and behold, here it was right in front of us. It didn't work because it was designed to be underpowered.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal from the center for investigative reporting and PRX. From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. The idea of zapping someone with an electrical weapon was once the stuff of science fiction.

 

Male: Set your face on one corner, I'll leave mine on stump.

 

Male: I feel strange.

 

Male: Just stunt, you'll be able to think in a minute.

 

Al Letson: In the mid 70s it became a reality.

 

Male: In the debate over whether to make handguns illegal, enter a new space age weapon that stuns but does not kill make them.

 

Al Letson: This 1975 ABC news report includes the only recorded interview we could find featuring Jack Cover. He's a Southern California scientist who invented the taser.

 

Jack Cover: We feel that it is a very suitable replacement for the gun, which as you know is lethal and is totally inadequate in the hands of the average citizen.

 

Al Letson: Cover said he got the name for the taser, not from Star Trek's Phaser, but from Tom Swift.

 

Tom Swift: Grandma, I want you to listen to me. I'm going to try and stop him with this.

 

Grandma: What does it do?

 

Tom Swift: I really don't know. It's an experimental electromagnet.

 

Grandma: Okay, hang on Tom.

 

Al Letson: Tom Swift was a fictional boy genius who invented all kinds of futuristic devices. The word taser is a loose acronym of the book, Tom Swift And his Electric Rifle. Today, a single company, Axon has a monopoly on producing tasers in the US, and most cops carry them. But the problem is, tasers often don't work the way police expect them to. Today on Reveal, we're looking at why that happens. With our colleagues at APM Reports, correspondent Curtis Gilbert finds out how Axon cornered the taser market, and what's happened since then.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Rick Smith was in his early 20s, fresh out of business school, when he decided to go into the electrical weapons business.

 

Rick Smith: Hello. I'd like to thank you for purchasing an air taser, the intelligent choice for self defense. I would also like to welcome you into my home. This video is set here because the air taser has made my home a safer place. The purpose of this video is to help you make your home a safer place as well.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It was 1994. At the time, another company called Taser Tron was still selling tasers based on Jack Cover's original design. It owned the patents and had the exclusive right to sell tasers to police departments in the US. So, air taser went after the consumer market.

 

Male: Back off Nester, and I mean right now.

 

Male: This is Ed Scott, I'm in the parking lot at the club Nine with my girlfriend. We've just subdued the attacker with an air taser, and we're getting the hell out of here.

 

Male: You have just with the future of self-defense, the dark age is over.

 

Curtis Gilbert: But, it turned out everyday citizens weren't that interested in arming themselves with electrical weapons. As Smith explained at an event in Phoenix a few years ago, by 1998 things were looking grim.

 

Rick Smith: We had to cut two thirds of the company, fire most of the people that worked there, go into starvation mode.

 

Curtis Gilbert: But a whole new market was about to open up for Smith. The patents that were preventing him from selling his tasers to US police were expiring. It could be a huge opportunity. There was just one problem.

 

Rick Smith: The early tasers were unreliable and not very effective.

 

Curtis Gilbert: When Smith demonstrated the air taser on volunteers, he would hand them a fake knife and tell them to try to fight through the effects of the electricity.

 

Rick Smith: We want you to attack the camera.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Some of them were able to do it. In order to compete with Taser Tron, Smith needed to make a weapon that really worked. His solution was simple. He turned the power up, way up. Smith tripled the amount of electrical charge his tasers put out.

 

Rick Smith: This the advanced taser M26.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It passed the attack, the camera test. Cops loved it, sales exploded. Smith renamed the company Taser International, and a few years later he took it public. He boosted the power of the weapons again, and bought up what was left of Taser Tron. From that point on, Smith had a monopoly. His company became a Wall Street darling. Smith talked about those days on a podcast called Entrepreneurs On Fire.

 

Rick Smith: In 2004, we were the top performing stock in the world. It was an amazing run at success. Then January 2005 hit. We got hit with a raft of lawsuits and a federal investigation into the safety of our devices that was absolutely miserable. We weren't sure the company would survive again. We got hit with like 150 lawsuits in less than a year.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Most of the lawsuits alleged tasers weren't as safe as the company claimed, that they could even be deadly. The company acknowledged that people had died after receiving taser shocks, but it pointed out they often had dangerous levels of drugs in their systems or some other health problem. Smith told CBS News it wasn't the taser that killed them.

 

Rick Smith: In every single case, these people would have died anyway.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Smith's company fought every suit and it almost always won. But he told ABC's Nightline the legal onslaught was getting expensive.

 

Male: Do you spend more on research and development or legal fees?

 

Rick Smith: There have been years when litigation has just been higher than our research.

 

Curtis Gilbert: So, the company soften its claims about the safety of its devices, and Smith began to acknowledge that in rare cases they could harm the heart.

 

Male: Can you absolutely guarantee that your product would never, ever cause cardiac arrest in any person?

 

Rick Smith: No, we can't make that guarantee. The best I can tell you is, these devices make dangerous situations safer.

 

Curtis Gilbert: But Smith's company changed more than its safety claims. It stopped turning up the power. In fact, it went in the opposite direction. In 2009, it released a new line of weapons that put out about half as much power. Finally, the lawsuits began to dry up. At one point in 2011, the company was simultaneously fighting 55 of them. As of its most recent quarterly report, that number was down to just eight. But, even as fewer suits were filed claiming taser shots were deadly, a new kind of lawsuit started popping up. Once the claim the lower powered tasers didn't put out enough juice to protect the police. Texas trial lawyer Andy Vickery, filed the first one in 2017. His client was a Houston police officer. She claims she was injured after her taser failed to subdue a woman who was fighting her.

 

Andy Vickery: All she knew is her taser didn't work and didn't know why. Frankly, we didn't know why until we got into discovery, and then lo and behold, here it was right in front us. It didn't Work because it was designed to be underpowered.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The company fought back in court, and in October, Vickery's client dropped her case in exchange for a $25,000 pay out from Axon, far less than the $7.5 million she was seeking. The company says the suit was without merit. It's still defending a similar one from the family of a New Orleans police officer who was shot and killed after his lower powered taser was allegedly ineffective. Axon says lower power doesn't necessarily mean lower effectiveness, and it says it's laboratory testing proves the newer tasers work just as well. But, in the real world, that doesn't seem to be the case. The Los Angeles Police Department switched to the lower powered tasers starting in late 2014.

 

Michael Moore: Now, did that lesson it's effectiveness? I believe it likely did.

 

Curtis Gilbert: LAPD Chief Michael Moore spoke about the change on Southern California Public Radio after this story originally aired in May. These days, when one of his officers pulls the trigger of a taser, it only does the job a little more than half the time. It used to be better than that. APM Reports conducted an extensive analysis of the department's taser database. We looked at other factors that might explain why the newer tasers didn't seem to work as well. Things like how the taser was used, how many times it was used, and the rank of the officer using it. Nothing in the data explained away the drop in effectiveness. Still, Chief Moore says a taser that works about half the time is better than no taser at all.

 

Michael Moore: The reality of the matter is that, that tool has never been 100% effective anymore than any other tool that we've used.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Los Angeles isn't the only place that seen the effectiveness of its teasers decline. New York and Houston saw the same trend as LA. The department switched to the newer, less powerful tasers and officers found that they weren't stopping people as reliably as the older tasers.

 

Julie Tron: That was exactly what we warned about.

 

Curtis Gilbert: We showed our data to Julie Tron. She's an attorney with the Bar Association of San Francisco. She wrote a report a couple of years ago questioning the effectiveness of the lower powered tasers. San Francisco is the only major city in North America where the police department doesn't use tasers. But in recent years, the department has been pushing to change that. Tron's group and others successfully lobbied city officials to block funding.

 

Julie Tron: Because that was the one question we kept raising, "You don't even know if this thing works. Why don't we wait and see if it works and how well it works?"

 

Curtis Gilbert: What's the answer to that now?

 

Julie Tron: Whether or not it works?

 

Curtis Gilbert: Yeah.

 

Julie Tron: It doesn't work as often as it should.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Axon has sold more than 750,000 of the new lower powered models called the X2 and the X26P, and it continues to sell them. But last year, it released its first new taser in five years, one it promises will be the most effective ever.

 

Mike Partipilo: Ready, fire. Gun. Taser, taser, pull the trigger, move. Don't stand still.

 

Curtis Gilbert: I went to Fort Worth Texas to see it in action. A group of taser instructors runs practice drills in the ballroom of a conference center there, A retired Chicago cop named Mike Partipilo barks orders as they fire at life-size targets bearing the image of a comic book villain. The character is a computer hacker called Iron Rose. He appears in the graphic novel Axon created as part of its marketing campaign for the brand new taser seven.

 

Mike Partipilo: Okay, threat secure weapon safe, dump those two cartridges.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The company calls this Axon Academy Bootcamp. It's part training session, part sales pitch, and there's also some time for questions.

 

Mike Partipilo: Anybody?

 

Curtis Gilbert: Carl Johnson.

 

Mike Partipilo: Yes sir.

 

Curtis Gilbert: A taser instructor from a small Texas city called Saginaw asks the first one.

 

Carl Johnson: I know I've seen that taser seven, did the pre-course and everything. You've talked about the pluses to it, what are some of the issues when it comes to the, I don't want to put it in layman's term, but the power issues?

 

Curtis Gilbert: He wants to know whether the taser seven does anything to address what he says are the power issues with the previous generation of tasers, the models that put out less electricity. Johnson doesn't mention this, but an officer from his department shot and killed a man a couple of years earlier after a lower powered taser failed to subdue him.

 

Carl Johnson: we saw the best way I can put it is the volume turned down on the effectiveness of the device no matter where the darts were deployed.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The short answer is, the power level in each pulse hasn't changed, but the taser seven concentrates that power in shorter, more intense bursts, and it puts out more of those bursts every second. Axon's Weapons Director Shane Page tells Johnson that'll make them more effective.

 

Shane Page: We're just making sure that the electricity that we are delivering is delivered more often in terms of pulses. So, not more, but more often and more effectively.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Axon has changed something else about the taser seven. It's range. In the past, its teasers were designed to take down someone from across a pretty big room. But, to get those long ranges, there was a trade off. Tasers didn't have as dramatic an effect on people when they were fired up close. The problem is, up close is where cops typically use tasers. So, how do you make a taser that works better in closer quarters? Well, remember those little darts that get fired from the taser? One of them flies straight, and the other one is angled slightly downward. The darts have to spread at least a foot apart before they hit to reliably stop someone.

 

Curtis Gilbert: If the officer fires at too close arrange, the darts don't have time to spread out. One way to solve that is to adjust the angle the darts leave the weapon, from this to this, so they spread apart faster. That's exactly what the new taser does. Axon says it will reliably take down people as close as four feet away compared to seven or even nine feet for its earlier models. But it turns out this new idea wasn't so new after all. Is it through that door?

 

Adrian Fisher: It is through that door. It is actually a vault.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The Bakken Museum in Minneapolis maintains a huge collection of artifacts all somehow related to both electricity and the human body. The vault is where curator Adrian Fisher keeps all the items that won't fit in the display cases.

 

Adrian Fisher: So, we have a lot of electrostatic generators, we have leyden jars in here, we have early kind of parlor game devices, little static merry-go-round carousels and things like that. This is the taser.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It's not just any taser. It's a TF1, the very first taser ever produced.

 

Adrian Fisher: We acquired it actually in 1975. We bought it just like any customer would.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Fisher wears white gloves as he carefully removes it from the box. The TF1 is made of drab gray plastic. It's part firearm, part flashlight. The light is supposed to help with aiming, and below that are the square holes where the darts come out. Can I take a look at that?

 

Adrian Fisher: Yes, of course.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Is it okay to touch the bag or?

 

Adrian Fisher: Yeah, it's in the back. So it's okay to be touched otherwise we use gloves.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It turns out that the TF1 fired it darts at the same angle as Axon's new taser seven and teasers with that design were still in production up until 2003. They were made by Taser Tron right up until Axon bought up its only competitor, and stopped producing its weapons. Over the years, from time to time, an aspiring competitor would pop up and try to compete with the taser. Axon's response was always the same. It sued them, and they went out of business. Texas trial lawyer Andy Vickery says that stifled innovation.

 

Andy Vickery: They hold a monopoly position in the market, that just comes with it, a lot of power to control what features you offer and don't, which is a practical matter. It means that municipalities and law enforcement agencies and even the military don't have a lot of alternatives.

 

Curtis Gilbert: In the meantime, the company has been expanding into other law enforcement business lines, body cameras, cloud computing, virtual reality, even artificial intelligence. That's where most of Axons, research and development spending has gone in recent years, not teasers.

 

Al Letson: We asked Axon about the data showing its lower powered tasers were less effective in Houston, LA, and New York. The company didn't directly address those trends in its response, but it said, "The methodology most US police departments use to track how well tasers work leads to inaccurate conclusions." After the break, we go back to Vermont and hear from the officer who fired his gun after a taser didn't bring down a man barricaded in his apartment.

 

Police: Me watching this guy being tased and walking towards us, swinging a knife at us, shocked me.

 

Al Letson: That's in a minute on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. It happens all over the country from a driveway in Washington State.

 

Police: One of the deputies to my right deployed a taser. Basically all the taser did was basically piss him off, and then he started almost like he was starting to sprint. So then like I said, that's when I started shooting.

 

Al Letson: To a wooded area in Northern California.

 

Police: Lay on your stomach now. Once I teased him, he said, "Okay, okay," but it didn't deter or slow him down in the fight at all. If anything, I felt like it just ramped it up. I thought if he hits me a couple more times, I'm going to go out and I'm not going to... I just really thought of my kids at that point, got my weapon out. Shots fired.

 

Al Letson: These stories follow a similar pattern. They start with police using a taser, it's ineffective, officers resort to firearms and someone ends up dead. APM Reports, an investigative reporting group based out of American Public Media found more than 250 cases like that all over the country in just a three year period. Correspondent Curtis Gilbert first brought us this story back in May. Now, he takes us back to where we started the show. Burlington, Vermont, a city that's now looking for alternatives to the taser.

 

Denis Gerard: This is Denis Gerard with the Vermont State Police. Today's date is March 23rd, 2016. Present with me is officer David C, is it Bowers or Bower?

 

David C. Bowers: Bowers.

 

Denis Gerard: Bowers. Obviously you were involved with the investigation involving the incident that just happened the other night.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Officer Bowers was just 23 when he killed Phil Grennan. He'd been with the Burlington police department less than two years. The shooting happened in Phil's apartment at the end of a tense four hour stand-off. Phil had come at the officers swinging knives after a taser failed to subdue him. Bowers estimated he was only four or five feet away when he pulled the trigger. He was terrified both for his own life and for the other cops in the room. He opened fire he told investigators, because he knew no one else was in the position to do it in time. As Phil lay dying on the floor, a chemical irritant called pepper ball, also known as OC, still hung in the air. Bowers watched as his fellow officers turned over Phil's body to give him first aid.

 

Denis Gerard: At that point, I saw what I believe to be one of my shots, which was in his upper chest area. I all of a sudden could not breathe. I don't know if there was OC in the corner of the room or if, I was just worked up. But, I remember saying out loud, "I can't breathe."

 

Curtis Gilbert: Bowers walked out of the apartment. He wasn't physically hurt, but the police chief sent him to the hospital just to be safe.

 

Denis Gerard: We walked into like the main ER section, and one of the physician's assistants, they kind of... The thing about it that ticked me off is really, they were really lackadaisical about it and he was like, "Do we know anything about the shooter or anything like that?" And I told him I'm the shooter, and he was shocked. All of a sudden he thought it was just some random shooting that had occurred.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Other officers came by to check on him. One of them gave him a hug. He wanted to talk to his parents about what happened, but he figured he wasn't supposed to, what with the investigation going on? The only people he felt he could confide in were his lawyer, and his union rep. The next night, Bowers told investigators, he barely slept. In the morning, he reached out to his ex-girlfriend.

 

Denis Gerard: I had sent her a text just like, "It's very clear to me how he just didn't say a word," and that really bothered me.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Bowers told investigators there was something else that bothered him. He couldn't believe it had been so easy for Phil to overcome the effects of the taser.

 

Denis Gerard: I participated in taser training several weeks ago. I watched people get tased and immediately after being hit with the probes, they would fall to the mat, they would scream in pain, and minimal movement was available to them. So to me, watching this guy being tased and walking towards us, swinging a knife at us, shocked me.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It didn't take long for the local prosecutor to conclude Bowers was justified in shooting Phil. Even Phil's daughter agreed with that. But at the press conference, announcing that decision, Burlington Police Chief, Brandon Del Pozo said this about how the standoff with Phil ended.

 

Brandon Del P.: He's the man we were trying to serve that night by subduing and getting him back on the medicine he needs, and we consider our efforts of failure in this case. We did not come to the conclusions that we strove for.

 

Curtis Gilbert: You said something at that press conference, which was that we failed. I was wondering what you meant by that.

 

Brandon Del P.: I had some officers that really took exception to me saying that we failed, because they took it personally. It doesn't mean it could have been avoided, it doesn't mean it could have turned out differently, it doesn't mean my cops liable because they're not, and it definitely doesn't mean that they did anything wrong because they didn't. They acted heroically up until the last minutes. But to the extent that our job is to rescue a person in crisis and bring him to help, we did not succeed in doing that.

 

Curtis Gilbert: So, in the aftermath of the shooting, Chief Del Pozo has tried to learn from it and especially from what happened with the taser.

 

Brandon Del P.: I learned a lot about tasers since the Phil Grennan and incident, some of were surprised me. One of the things I did learn was that they had stepped down the power on the model that we were using for reasons of perceived hazard and liability. Also, that there was for a time advice to shoot people in the back with a taser, which is another, I think things that cops find intuitively strange because, you have to have really extenuating circumstances to use force on someone that could be so serious from behind.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Axon's research shows that tasers are most effective when applied to the back, because there's more muscle there. Del Pozo also learned that tasers are less effective than he'd assumed. He says part of the problem is they're unlike any other tool an officer carries.

 

Brandon Del P.: If you think about the baton, it is just a remarkably simple piece of equipment. If you think about the human hand that's very complex and fragile, but the cop has excellent control over it and pretty much knows what it can do. The gun is a very old, reliable piece of equipment with a known outcome. Pepper spray is literally hot peppers that go in your eyes and irritate your mucus membranes. The taser is this complicated piece of machinery with electricity, and its success is contingent on a lot of different factors of human physiology and luck. It's the most complicated thing a cop has on his or her belt.

 

Curtis Gilbert: So, the Burlington Police Department went looking for some simpler solutions. The department spent about a quarter million dollars to buy and outfit this truck. They call it the emergency response vehicle. Officer Greg Short says it carries everything the cops here could possibly need in case of a mental health call, or a hostage negotiation or any other crisis.

 

Greg Short: I mean, we have robots on here, we have night vision goggles, we have thermal imaging, we have breaching tools in here, like what you'd see maybe like the fire department has.

 

Curtis Gilbert: This is basically like a rolling Swiss army knife.

 

Greg Short: Kind of, but this is not your typical SWAT vehicle if you will. I'm not going to open up a panel, and you're not going to see a missile launcher in here. That's not what this truck was meant for at all. This truck has tools on it to help us control a situation, a possibly hostile situation and hopefully deal with that situation, and take care of that situation in a non-lethal way.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Officer short jumps up on the back of the truck, unlocks a panel and pulls out an eight foot long metal pole with a semicircle on one end, about the size of a man's chest. It's called a Y bar.

 

Greg Short: Usually, one or two officers would be on the end here and you would literally pin someone with the arms on the end, either up against the wall, on the ground, being able to take them out at the legs, being able to like I said, control them from a distance, just as safely for yourself and for them, truly apprehend them.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It's pretty low tech. The truck also carries a couple of old fashioned fire extinguishers filled with nothing more than pressurized water. Chief Del Pozo says that's the sort of thing that could work against someone with a knife. Someone like Phil.

 

Brandon Del P.: If you spray that at someone's face, they cannot advance towards you. They have to look away or put their hand up in front of their eyes. That and a metal bar shaped like a Y can be the difference between having to shoot someone or not.

 

Curtis Gilbert: There are no tasers on the emergency response vehicle, but Burlington police officers still carry them on their belts. Del Pozo wants his officers to have as many options as possible, but the Phil Grennan shooting has changed the way he thinks about tasers.

 

Brandon Del P.: Knowing what I know now, if all things are being equal and there's a man with a knife in a bathroom down the street from this police headquarters, we would not make the same plan. We would not say the best way to end this after hours and hours is to send in a team that will rely on a taser. If you're using tasers as part of a planned operation, like a barricaded person, a person in crisis, if you're using it to conclude a stable situation, you better have a backup plan because there's a good chance it's not going to work and you'll need to do something else.

 

Al Letson: Axon says it's trying to improve its tasers. In October of last year, it released the taser seven the Curtis talked about. The company says the weapon will work better in close quarters, but the change comes too late for Phil Grennan and officer David Bowers. The weapons that don't work as well at close range, the ones that police departments are finding to be less effective, they're still for sale. Last year, Axon shipped more than 130,000 of them.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Curtis Gilbert who reported and produced today's show. It was edited by Catherine winter. They had help from their colleagues at APM Reports, Angela Caputo, Geoff Hing, Dave Mann, Nikki Pederson, and Alex Smith along with Editor in Chief, Chris Worthington. We also got production help from Reveal's, Michael Montgomery, Najeeb Amini, Kaitlin Benz and data reporter Melissa Lewis. Thanks to Vermont Public Radio, and to reporter Joey Roulette in Orlando, our production managers Melinda Jinahosa, original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man you're a router.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Female: From PRX.