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May 11, 2019

When Tasers fail

Co-produced with PRX Logo

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 are often 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. In Texas, we talk with a lawyer who is suing Axon, claiming a police officer was injured after her Taser failed to incapacitate a suspect. We visit Axon Academy Bootcamp in Fort Worth, Texas. And we talk with police officials in Southern California, where the Taser was first developed.

Read: When Tasers Fail – APM Reports

Credits

This week’s show was produced in collaboration with APM Reports, the investigative and documentary unit of 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.

We also had help from Reveal’s Najib Aminy, Kaitlin Benz, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery and Kevin Sullivan.

Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda.  Flute performance by Jenny Berggren.

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: This is Al Letson, your favorite host in the multiverse. Give me a second here because I just want to brag a little bit about my team at Reveal. This year, Reveal stories have won some of the biggest awards in journalism. Winning awards and getting recognized for the work we do, well, it feels good, but what matters the most is getting to do the work, the digging, the fact-finding, holding people accountable, calling out racism and injustice, and, well, you're a part of this, too.

 

Al Letson: All through May, I'm going to be asking you to become a member of the show. It's the very best way to support the work we do, and it's easy. Just text the word "Donate," to 903-201-2123. That's 903-201-2123. All new members who sign up before June and give, at least, $8 a month will get one of our "Facts," t-shirts. Everyone here at the office wears them. They really are one of the best pieces of swag out there. No logo, no advertising, just the word "Facts," in big, bold letters. The truth never looked so good. So, get yours today by texting "Donate," to 903-201-2123. That's 903-201-2123. So, join us because there's always more to the story, but we can't tell it without you.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: (singing)

 

Al Letson: This video has been viewed almost seven million times on Facebook. It's the band OneRepublic 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."

 

Al Letson: (singing)

 

Al Letson: 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.

 

Speaker 2: All right. Our program is going to be getting 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 threw 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 company 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's gotten better, you've come to rely on it more and more, and 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 to 95 percent effective in the field.

 

Al Letson: Axon has claimed that during testing, its tasers were effective 99, even 100 percent 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. APM reports a team of investigative journalist at American Public Media spent the last year looking at what happens when tasers fail. Their correspondent, Curtis Gilbert, begins by taking us to Burlington, Vermont. Before we get started, we should warn you that this story may be disturbing for some listeners.

 

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 catered 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 was it to come as a surprise?

 

Lynn Martin: 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 Grenon 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, 5:00 in the afternoon and would quiet, finally, maybe at 11:00 at night and then it would start up again at, like, 5:00 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'd just talk 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 it, 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'll kind of use the language. You can edit it out if you want, but, "You (beep) are a retard," blah, blah, blah. He just really let her have it, and 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'd 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." He was coming out with really, very, very alarming stuff, and 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, and 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.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Hey, Phil, it's Officer Ellerman, Burlington Police.

 

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

 

Durwin Ellerman: [crosstalk 00:07:53]. Drop the knife. Drop the knife right now. Drop the knife.

 

Speaker 7: Drop it.

 

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

 

Speaker 7: Call for backup. 344, he's got a knife. Get [inaudible 00:08:02].

 

Curtis Gilbert: One officer draws a gun.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Drop the knife.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The other-

 

Speaker 7: Get your taser out.

 

Curtis Gilbert: ... draws a taser.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Phil, drop it and talk to us.

 

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

 

Phil Grenon: I'm a lawyer.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Okay.

 

Phil Grenon: I'm a psychiatrist.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Well, tell me more about that. Well, put down [crosstalk 00:08:17]-

 

Phil Grenon: [crosstalk 00:08:17], you stupid son of a bitch.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Put down the knife.

 

Phil Grenon: Leave me alone.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Put down the knife.

 

Phil Grenon: Leave me alone.

 

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 master's in education instead. Phil taught at the community college level before his mental illness made holding a job impossible. 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-

 

Speaker 7: [crosstalk 00:08:49]-

 

Curtis Gilbert: ... fires a taser.

 

Speaker 7: Taser, taser, taser.

 

Durwin Ellerman: I think one didn't hit.

 

Speaker 7: 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, and it wouldn't be the last time the Burlington Police Department tried to use a taser that night.

 

Brandon P.: I was down at the shooting range at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsburgh 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 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.

 

Mike: Hey, Phil. It's Mike. I haven't gone anywheres. We know that you got a notice and 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.

 

Mike: 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 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.

 

Brandon P.: So, I can see [inaudible] to the table and everything. We'll see him.

 

Brandon P.: What we saw was nothing. We just saw empty rooms.

 

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

 

Brandon P.: Slow and steady, guys.

 

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

 

Brandon P.: Burlington Police. Come out.

 

Curtis Gilbert: They find Phil standing in the shower,-

 

Brandon P.: [crosstalk 00:11:46].

 

Curtis Gilbert: ... hiding behind the curtain. He still has the knives.

 

Speaker 7: He's got a knife in his hand.

 

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

 

Speaker 7: 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.

 

Speaker 7: Hey, we're going to avoid the pepper ball from now on.

 

Durwin Ellerman: Avoid the pepper ball?

 

Speaker 7: Yeah. Note to self, never use pepper ball again inside close quarters.

 

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

 

Brandon P.: My sergeant says, "Listen, we can definitely get up on him," and, "We have enough staffing here, we have enough equipment, if we could stun him with the taser, we should be able to get in there and to take him into custody."

 

Speaker 7: Is he going to tense up or drop the knife if we hit him with that?

 

Brandon P.: 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. Some-

 

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

 

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

 

Curtis Gilbert: Officer Durwin 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.

 

Durwin Ellerman: So, I had my taser out at the ready, off safe, started [inaudible] push the ... Sorry ... push 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 P.: The plan stops working the moment they fire the taser.

 

Durwin Ellerman: I fired the first cartridge. I think it got a good lock on him 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 fucking barbs out of himself.

 

Curtis Gilbert: As soon as Phil removes one of the barbed 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 that the brain can't tell the arms, legs, and muscles what to do. If you can't move, you can't attack anyone.

 

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

 

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

 

Leo: 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 Axon's 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 Grenon.

 

Brandon 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.

 

Durwin Ellerman: He immediately steps out of the tub and his arms are going, the knives are flailing. I don't remember if I said, "Back up." I know someone said, "Get back. Get back. Get back."

 

Speaker 7: [inaudible 00:15:17].

 

Durwin Ellerman: He's moving fast. We did not expect him to move that fast.

 

Jan Wright: [crosstalk] exits [crosstalk 00:15:23]-

 

Curtis Gilbert: Out on the street, the deputy chief is still talking to reporters. She's in mid-sentence when the gun shots ring out.

 

Male: Hold, hold, hold, hold.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The cameras pan up to the open window on the second floor. 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 gun shots.

 

Brandon P.: By the time we were done with this encounter, unfortunately, the room was just a criss-cross 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 fail to resolve the situation, and then police resorted to firearms. In more than 100 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 Phil Grenon's death, too. It's a question that gnawed on Phil's niece, Sarah Grenon.

 

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

 

Curtis Gilbert: Why did you decide to do that?

 

Sarah Grenon: 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 Grenon: 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 close a 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 Grenon: 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, and 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, officers 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.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Are you Cynthia?

 

Cynthia: Yeah.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Hi. Curtis Gilbert.

 

Cynthia: Hi, Curtis. Call my Cindy.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Cindy. Okay. I will.

 

Cynthia: Come on in.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Thank you so much.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Cindy Collum has lived in this tiny, one-bedroom apartment for 18 years.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Where shall we sit down and visit.

 

Cynthia: You sit in Phil's chair.

 

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

 

Cynthia: He'd come down and sit in that chair and we'd talk and ... 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 effected 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, and 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 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: [crosstalk 00:21:05]. Listen, [inaudible] ... The person who is in his apartment right now is named Steve and he just moved in there a few months ago. He would let you in in a minute.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Could you take me up there and-

 

Cynthia: Oh, sure.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Shall we go see him?

 

Cynthia: Sure.

 

Cynthia: Hi, Steve.

 

Steve Waclawik: Hi, how are you?

 

Cynthia: How are you?

 

Curtis Gilbert: Steve Waclawik is 67 and lives with a little dog named Thor.

 

Steve Waclawik: This is Thor.

 

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

 

Steve Waclawik: 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: All right. So, 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've been a big factor in why the taser didn't work on Phil.

 

Al Letson: We asked Axon to talk to us. They initially agreed, 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 faces lawsuits from police officers.

 

Andy Vickery: All she knew is her 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.

 

Al Letson: If you caught our show last week, you'll remember that we brought you the story of how President George H.W. Bush held up a baggie of crack on national TV. It was a part of his agenda to get tough on drug crimes. He wanted Americans to feel like crack was everywhere and a huge threat. That story came to us from a great podcast called The Uncertain Hour from Marketplace. Their reporters pick up the story by going to ground zero of the deadliest drug epidemic ever, opioids. In a small Virginia county, they investigate where the drugs are coming from and what people are doing to stop them. Listen and subscribe to The Uncertain Hour wherever you get your podcasts. You won't regret it.

 

Al Letson: 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.

 

James Kirk: Set your phaser on one quarter. I'll leave mine on stun.

 

Speaker 22: Why, I feel strange.

 

James Kirk: Just stunned. You'll be able to think in a minute.

 

Al Letson: But in the mid-'70s, it became a reality.

 

Speaker 23: In of the debate over whether to make handguns illegal enter a new space-age weapon that stuns, but does not kill the victim. [crosstalk 00:24:40]-

 

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.

 

Tom Swift: We feel that it is a very suitable replacement for the gun, which, as you know, is lethal and it's tidally 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.

 

Speaker 25: What does it do?

 

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

 

Speaker 25: 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, and 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 Tasertron 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.

 

Speaker 26: Back off, master, and I mean right now.

 

Speaker 27: This is Ed Scott. I'm in the parking lot of Club 9 with my girlfriend. We just subdued an attacker with an Air Taser and we're getting the hell out of here.

 

Speaker 28: You have just witnessed the future of self-defense. The Dark Age is over.

 

Curtis Gilbert: But it turned out every day 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.

 

Rick Smith: All right.

 

Curtis Gilbert: In order to compete with Tasertron, 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 is the Advanced Taser M26.

 

Curtis Gilbert: And it passed the attack the camera test.

 

Rick Smith: Yeah. [inaudible 00:28:19].

 

Curtis Gilbert: 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 Tasertron. 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 amazing run of 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."

 

Speaker 29: Do you spend more on research and development or legal fees?

 

Rick Smith: There have been years when the litigation budget's been higher than our research.

 

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

 

Speaker 29: Could 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 annual report, that number was done to just eight. But even as fewer suits were filed claiming taser shots were deadly, a new kind of lawsuit started popping up, ones that claimed the lower-powered tasers didn't put out enough juice to protect the police. There's one in New Orleans from the family of an officer who was shot and killed after his lower-powered taser was, allegedly, ineffective. There's another one from a Houston officer. She says she was injured after her taser failed to subdue a woman who was fighting her. Andy Vickery is the officer's lawyer.

 

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

 

Curtis Gilbert: The company disputes that. It claims lower power doesn't necessarily mean lower effectiveness and it says its laboratory testing proves the lower-powered tasers work just as well. But in the real world, that doesn't seem to be the case. In Los Angeles, when an officer 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.

 

John McMahon: Here's what we know.

 

Curtis Gilbert: John McMahon is a captain with the LAPD.

 

John McMahon: Without dispute, the rate of ineffectiveness has gone up since, roughly, about the same time of that transition to the newer model. However, what we don't know is how to interpret the large amounts of data given the endless number of variables that go into that.

 

Curtis Gilbert: So, APM Reports looked at the other variables the department tracks in its taser database, things like how the taser was used, how many times it was used, and the rank of the officer using it. None of those factors explained away the drop in effectiveness. Still, McMahon says, "A taser that works about half the time is better than no taser at all."

 

John McMahon: It provides officers with yet another option that can avoid the use of deadly force and save a life. We would, ideally, as an organization, like all our less lethal tools to have 100 percent effectiveness, but we know that's unrealistic.

 

Curtis Gilbert: We also looked at taser data from New York and Houston. Those cities saw the same trend as LA. The department switched to the newer, less powerful tasers, and officers found 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 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 the city is now on the verge of changing that after its leaders spent years studying whether the benefits of tasers outweigh the costs.

 

Julie Tron: I think that they should be asked to undertake that work again, particularly in light of your additional research, 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: And 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 600,000 of the lower-powered models called the X2 and the X26P, and it continues to sell them, but in October, it released its first new taser in five years, one it promises will be the most effective ever.

 

Speaker 33: Ready. Fire. Gun. Taser, taser. Pull the trigger and move. Don't stand still.

 

Curtis Gilbert: I went to Fort Worth, Texas to see it in action.

 

Speaker 33: Break that tunnel vision. Look around you. [crosstalk 00:34:14]-

 

Curtis Gilbert: A group of taser instructors runs practice drill in the ball room of a conference center there. A retired Chicago cop-

 

Speaker 33: Move. Don't stand still. [crosstalk 00:34:20]-

 

Curtis Gilbert: ... named Mike Partipilo barks orders as they fire at life-sized targets bearing the image of a comic book villain.

 

Speaker 33: Reload. Reload. [crosstalk 00:34:27]-

 

Curtis Gilbert: 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 7.

 

Speaker 33: Okay. Threat secured. Weapons 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.

 

Speaker 34: Anybody?

 

Curtis Gilbert: Carl Johnson,-

 

Speaker 34: Yes, sir.

 

Curtis Gilbert: ... a taser instructor from a small, Texas city called Saginaw-

 

Speaker 34: [inaudible 00:34:56].

 

Curtis Gilbert: ... asks the first one.

 

Carl Johnson: I've seen that Taser 7, did a brief 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 to layman's term, but the power issues?

 

Curtis Gilbert: He wants to know whether the Taser 7 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 years earlier after a lower-powered taser failed to subdue him.

 

Carl Johnson: We saw that ... The best way I can put it is the volume turned down on the effectiveness of the device no matter where their probes were deployed.

 

Curtis Gilbert: The short answer is the power level in each pulse hasn't changed, but the Taser 7 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 7, its range. In the past, its tasers 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?

 

Curtis Gilbert: 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. If the officer fires at too close a range, 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, and 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.

 

Curtis Gilbert: 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 parlor game devices, little static merry-go-rounds, 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.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Can I take a look at that?

 

Adrian Fisher: Yes, of course.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Is it okay to touch the bag?

 

Adrian Fisher: Yeah. It's in the bag, so it's okay to be touched. Otherwise, we use gloves.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Right.

 

Curtis Gilbert: It turns out that the TF1 fired its darts at the same angle as Axon's new Taser 7, and tasers with that design were still in production up until 2003. They were made by Tasertron right up until Axon bought up its only competitor and stopped producing its weapons.

 

Curtis Gilbert: 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 as a practical matters 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 Axon's research and development spending has gone in recent years, not tasers.

 

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.

 

Speaker 38: So, 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.

 

Al Letson: 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-

 

Speaker 39: 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.

 

Speaker 40: Lay on your stomach now. Once I tased 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. I'm not going to ... I just really thought of my kids at that point. Got my weapon out ...

 

Speaker 40: 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 in American Public Media found more than 250 cases like that all over the country in just a three-year period. We started the show where one of those shootings happened, in Burlington, Vermont. APM Reports' correspondent, Curtis Gilbert, takes us back there now as the city looks for alternatives to the taser.

 

Dennis Gerard: This is Dennis Gerard with the Vermont State Police. Today's date is March 23, 2016. Present with me is Officer David C. ... Is it Bowers or Bower.

 

David Powers: Bowers with an S.

 

Dennis Gerard: Powers. Obviously, we're involved with the investigation involving the incident that just happened the other night.

 

Curtis Gilbert: Officer Bowers was just 23 when he killed Phil Grenon. 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 standoff. 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.

 

David Powers: At that point, I saw what I believed 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.

 

David Powers: We walked into the main ER section and one of the physician's assistants, they had a ... The thing about it that kind of ticked me off, he was 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 the 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.

 

David Powers: I had sent her a text, just like, "It was very eerie 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.

 

David Powers: 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 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 a failure in this case. We did not come to the conclusion that we strove for.

 

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

 

Brandon P.: So, 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've turned out differently, it doesn't mean by cops were 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 P.: I learned a lot about tasers since the Phil Grenon incident, some of which 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 the 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 P.: If you think about the baton, it is just a remarkably simple piece of equipment. If you think about the human hand, it'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 mucous membranes. The taser is this complicated piece of machinery with electricity, and it's 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 hostage negotiation or any other crisis.

 

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

 

Curtis Gilbert: Yeah. 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, like, 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, 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 semi-circle 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 a wall, on the ground, being able to take him out at the legs, being able to, like I said, control them from a distance. Just a 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 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 mean 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 Grenon shooting has changed the way he thinks about tasers.

 

Brandon 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 7 that Curtis talked about. The company says the weapon will work better in close quarters, but the change comes too late for Phil Grenon 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, Kaitlyn Benz, and data reporter Melissa Lewis. Thanks, also, to Vermont Public Radio and to reporter Joey Roulette in Orlando. Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando "My Man, Yo" Arruda. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, the Jonathon Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production for the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 44: From PRX.