Stunning Market Opportunity
By Joel TozerApril 26, 2012
The American manufacturer of Tasers has set its sights on the private security market in Australia. With many security guards already licensed to carry handguns, will the company convince Australians we need more Tasers?
A quick search of the word 'Taser' on YouTube brings up thousands of videos, some showing police brutality, others of teens tasering each other for fun, even CCTV footage from the bonnet of police cars.
Perhaps the most popular video is that of Andrew Meyer, a University of Florida student filmed as he was forcibly removed from a forum by police in 2007. When he resisted, police threatened him with a Taser and, just before being zapped in the back, Meyer famously yelled, "Don't Tase me, bro!"
While the incident is more disturbing than funny, the video has had more than six million views on YouTube and countless spoofs have been posted online. The phrase 'tase' was even named runner-up Word of the Year in 2007 by the New Oxford American Dictionary.
Tasers may be the stuff of comedy for some, but the weapon remains controversial, with public concern spurred on by every news report that links it to a death or injury. Civil rights groups say Tasers are a dangerous invitation to police officers; cops retort that the weapon plays a vital role in reducing gun use and protecting the public.
Mixed amongst the gag videos online are promotional videos for Taser International — the supplier of Tasers to Australian police officers — with flashy editing showing off their latest gadgets. A virtual tour of the company's headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona, takes you inside the 100,000-square-foot, sci-fi fortress of metal and glass. High above the entrance is a catwalk — a feature of the building meant to resemble the bridge where Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader fought in Star Wars. It's all part of the high-tech, macho brand of Taser International.
A USD90 million a year company today, Taser International's journey from a humble, backyard project has been marked with aggressive legal disputes in the United States and an ongoing debate about the safety of its devices. In Australia, the Western Australian corruption watchdog recently released its report into the repeated tasering of an Aboriginal man in police custody, reigniting debate over police use of these modern weapons.
Taser International did not invent the Taser, but the company has made significant changes to the weapon so it could be classed as a non-firearm. In fact it was Jack Cover, an Apollo mission scientist, who invented the Taser, in the mid-1970s. Cover named it after his favourite childhood book — Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. He wanted to make a safe, non-lethal weapon for law enforcement, after watching news reports of emergencies such as plane hijackings. Ideally, a different weapon would limit the physical injuries caused by a baton and the lethal force of a handgun.
But Cover's Taser, the TF-76, had limited market appeal because its darts were fired with gunpowder, putting it under the same restrictions as a lethal firearm. In 1993, brothers Rick and Tom Smith made contact with Cover, hatching a plan to do business together and to transform the Taser into a profitable, "world-changing" device.
In 1994, Cover and Taser International modified the weapon so that the darts were propelled by compressed nitrogen. The original concept remained: when the darts pierce the skin, an electric shock flows through the body, sending unruly suspects to the ground. The brothers used their backyard to test out the device on themselves - Rick was shot at from the front, while standing ankle-deep in a kiddie bathing pool. It worked.
When the first Air Taser hit the US market in 1994, a patent agreement by Jack Cover and his previous company meant that it was only available to consumers. In 1998, when the device was made available to police, the company needed to show a Taser could take down any suspect, regardless of weight or strength.
The proof would be in a bulky, marine gunnery sergeant named Hans Marrero, whom Rick Smith first met at a Use of Force conference in Texas. Marrero was plucked at random from the audience, to demonstrate how the Taser works to police officers. But instead of falling to the ground when he was hit, Marrero remained upright, slightly in pain. "That's a pretty good weapon," he said. "If you'd shot me by surprise, you might have had a chance of taking me down."
Police watched on, amused.
Not long after, Taser International released a promotional video for its new Advanced Taser M26, showing Marrero as "one of the TOUGHEST men alive". The dimly lit scene shows a shirtless Marrero being pushed into scenes of pain — a headlock, a punch to the chest, a man strangling him from above — each time, to no avail. But then comes the stun gun. Seconds after the Taser is fired, Marrero drops to the ground, curling up in pain. He describes the experience to the camera as being more effective than a grenade hit.
Having increased the effectiveness of the weapon — now directly targeting the muscles and capable of producing 50,000 volts of electric shock— the Smiths began selling the M26 Taser, with Marrero now the chief instructor at Taser International. Sales were picking up, growing from 500 law enforcement agencies worldwide in 2000, to more than 7,000 in 2004, according to company figures.
By now the company had upgraded the weapon again, introducing the Taser X26, the device Australian police currently use.
But controversy lingered.
In early 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched a probe into safety claims made by Taser International, causing its shares to drop. In an SEC filing from March of that year, the company admitted that Taser products "are often used in aggressive confrontations that may result in serious, permanent bodily injury or death to those involved. Our products may cause or be associated with these injuries."
As the investigation continued, Taser International revealed that the company offered stock options to police officers. The company did not deny the options had been offered but claimed doing so had not violated its own code of ethics or industry norms. It also maintains that the officers "served at agencies that had already implemented their TASER programs and weren’t part of any purchasing department".
By May 2006, the SEC announced it would not be taking any formal action against the company.
Today, Taser International has virtually cornered the market of "less-lethal" weapons, gaining the trust of dozens of law enforcement agencies across the world. As of December 31 last year, Taser figures show it had sold roughly "590,000 Taser brand electronic control devices [ECD] to more than 16,730 law enforcement and military agencies" worldwide. The company exports devices to countries including New Zealand, Brazil, France, Singapore and South Korea.
Taser International's commercial market is expanding, too — mostly in America, where 45 states allow the purchase of a personal taser for protection. The company says it has sold 244,000 tasers to the general public.
While it is unlikely that Taser's commercial products will be in Australian stores anytime soon, the company recently spoke to The Global Mail about its plans for expansion in Australia.
Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications at Taser International, told usthat the company's distributor, Breon Enterprises, has visions of arming Australian security officers with tasers. These are the people typically responsible for guarding commercial premises, or protecting the public in shopping centres or at large events.
"Security officers in Australia currently can be licensed with firearms and have little or no alternative when faced with a 'real and impending threat', and it therefore makes sense that these officers (under strict guidelines and accountability) with sufficient training, have access to the most efficient 'less-lethal option' on the market," Tuttle said in an email statement. Remember that word — accountability.
Currently, tasers are listed as a 'prohibited weapon' in Australia and can only be licensed to law enforcement, corrective services and the military. Any move to equip private security companies with tasers would require legislative change, not to mention guidelines on how they would be used and monitored.
The police ministers in Victoria and Western Australia told The Global Mail they do not support the use of tasers for private security. "The Coalition Government has no plans to change the current legislative arrangements in relation to the use of tasers in Victoria," a spokesperson for Victorian Minister of Police, Peter Ryan, said.
The distributor of Tasers in Australia admits that there are a number of hurdles to jump, including "scepticism" and "nil confidence in giving security such a device".
Nevertheless, Breon Enterprises director George Hateley is keen to overcome the obstacles: "Guidelines should be clear and concise as to their use and licensing, any penalties relating to the misuse or abuse could and should be heavy.
"I see little reason why [security guards] can't be issued TASER once governments pass legislation for them to have access to a 'less lethal' option," he said in an email statement.
Hateley says he and his colleagues have spoken to many Australian security organisations, including SecureCorp, which, by its own numbers, employs roughly 2,300 people nationally. The security firm says that equipping security guards who already can carry lethal force with tasers would be a logical progression. "Surely [security guards] should be able to defend themselves without taking human life," Craig Harwood, joint managing director of SecureCorp told The Global Mail.
Harwood says that currently security guards can be issued only with a baton, handcuffs and a handgun, while police in similar situations are issued with capsicum spray and tasers as well. "The question has to be asked why security personnel, who are likely to encounter similar situations as police officers, are not afforded the same level of protection," Harwood says.
Statistics on the number of Australian police officers issued with tasers are difficult to come by. Some states reserve the weapon for specialist police units, other states are rolling them out to general duty officers. Breon Enterprises says contracts prevent the company revealing direct numbers, but it has supplied "in excess of 10,000" tasers across Australia since the weapons were first introduced in Western Australia in 2007.
As for the number of times tasers are deployed, New South Wales Police have released their figures, showing a sharp increase — from 126 uses in 2008 to 881 in 2011. The number is down from the 2010 high of 1,151 uses. Meanwhile the rate at which police draw their firearms has not decreased — staying at roughly 800 times per year since 2008.
Top of the debate about tasers is their potential to be lethal rather than "less than lethal". An Amnesty International report says 500 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being tasered during their arrest or in jail. While most of the deaths have been attributed to causes other than the taser, the Amnesty report says, "Medical examiners have listed Tasers as a cause or contributing factor in more than 60 deaths."
Taser International says it is not aware of any study that proves the weapon can directly cause death in humans. Indeed a study published last year by the US Department of Justice found "no conclusive medical evidence within the state of current research that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects" of tasers. But the study also noted that there is limited evidence showing the impact of tasers on vulnerable people, such as those who are unhealthy or intoxicated, those most likely to find themselves in situations where authorities might want to use a taser.
In late 2009 Taser International issued a new set of guidelines in which there was one notable change: users should avoid, where possible, aiming the Taser at the chest. Almost two years later, a jury awarded USD10 million to the family of 17-year-old Darryl Turner, who died in March 2008 after being tasered by police in Charlotte, North Carolina. Jurors found that Taser International knew its weapon could kill but did not properly warn police. On appeal, the fine was reduced to USD5 million.
The family's lawyer, John Burton, called the finding "a huge victory for safety … and people concerned that this device is being given to police with false assurances of its safety."
Taser International has faced more than 100 lawsuits worldwide over the safety of its products — often following the death or injury of a police suspect. Tuttle says that of the 196 legal cases brought against the company, it has lost only two.
In Australia, too, concern has been raised about police procedures for using tasers. NSW police have not included Taser International's new product warning in their guidelines. "The manufacturer issues a stark warning to operators not to fire at the chest because it can be lethal but remarkably NSW police guidelines make no mention of this," said NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge. Current guidelines advise police to aim for the back and to avoid shots to the head.
Steve Tuttle says the warning is made clear in all training for Taser products: "NSW officers are advised in their training to avoid (where possible) those designated areas." The company also says the warnings are provided to certified Taser instructors and within their training curriculum, presentations, lesson plans and on their website.
Since tasers were first rolled out in Western Australia in 2007, at least six people have died after being tasered — but in none of these cases has the taser been found to be the direct cause.
One of these cases includes Antonio Galeano, who died of a heart attack after he allegedly assaulted a woman in June 2009 at a unit in Brandon, Queensland. According to data tabled at the coronial inquest into Galeano's death, in just five and a half minutes police fired several tasers up to 28 times, though this has been disputed.
The death of 21-year-old Roberto Laudisio Curti, who died in Sydney after being subdued with capsicum spray and Tasered, caused a diplomatic incident with the Brazilian Government calling for a "vigorous investigation" into the young man's death.
Aside from questions of safety, several studies — such as the NSW Ombudsman's 2008 report into the use of tasers by NSW police — have raised concerns about the potential for the weapon to be overused by police. And a report into the repeated tasering in 2008 of an Aboriginal man in police custody, just released in April 2012, has only intensified that argument.
The CCTV footage of the incident shows an unarmed man seated in the Perth watch house. Holding on to the armrest of the bench, the man refused, police say, to comply with a strip-search. One officer tries to "startle" the man by kicking out at him. Another draws his Taser weapon, ordering: "Give us your hand or you're going to get fucking Tasered."
The man did not let go.
With the apparent crack of a Taser the man falls to the ground. "Do you want to go again? Do you want to go again?" a police officer yells. By now at least eight police officers surround him. The recording skips in and out of mute, punctuated by the grating sounds of a Taser and the inevitable screams that follow.
In just over a minute, the man is allegedly tasered at least nine times by more than one police officer. During a week in custody, police deployed their tasers on the man at least 31 times.
The victim, Kevin Spratt, made international news headlines when the video footage of the incident was played before the Corruption and Crime Commission in 2010, sparking a debate about the necessity of tasers and excessive use of force by police officers.
Now, more than three years after the incident, the WA Corruption and Crime Commission has formally criticised the actions of two senior constables who were recorded tasering Spratt, on several occasions without warning — contrary to police requirements. The report says their actions showed "an undue and excessive use of force which was unreasonable and unjustified".
The Commission recommended that the Director of Public Prosecutions consider charging the two sergeants. It also made several recommendations about the use of tasers, including a review of police negotiation and resolution techniques.
Commenting on the Commission's latest report, Acting Commissioner of the Corruption and Crime Commission, Mark Herron, told the media that "any reasonable person viewing a video in which police tasered Mr Spratt nine times in a little over a minute is left with a feeling of considerable disquiet if not outrage".
WA Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan says that all the recommendations from the Crime and Corruption Commission already have been put in place. Kevin Spratt is currently serving a 12-month prison sentence for threatening an off-duty police officer, reckless driving and willful damage.
Still the expansion of tasers among law enforcement seems assured; NSW and Victoria have announced that more general-duty officers soon will have the devices.
While most Australian police officers use the Taser X26, there is growing interest in a new Taser X2, which can issue two shots in quick succession. Northern Territory police have purchased "a number" of the devices, and NSW police also have reportedly indicated that they would like to trial it.