Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
On January 3rd, 1979, two officers from the Los Angeles Police Department went to the home of Eulia May Love a 39-year-old African-American mother. The officers were there because of a dispute over an unpaid gas bill.

Archive Tape:
“They had been called to her home by the gas company because she had hit the utilities bill collector with a shovel. Mrs. Love was overdue with her $69 payment.”

Roman Mars:
The officers approached her and the encounter quickly turned violent. Love allegedly threatened the officers with a knife.

Archive Tape:
“They fired 12 times and killed her. Her neighbors in Watts couldn’t believe it.”

Archive Tape:
“They could have subdued this lady without using the weapons that they used. They could have took her alive, plain and simple, because it was two cops against one lady with a butcher knife.”

George Lavender:
Neither of the two offices involved were prosecuted for the killing.

Roman Mars:
That’s George Lavender, a criminal justice reporter at KCRW in Los Angeles.

George Lavender:
The shooting sparked protests and calls for the resignation of the chief of police.

Archive Tape:
“In the months since, Blacks and liberals have become intensely critical of what they charge as excessive use of force by the Los Angeles Police Department. The American Civil Liberties Union says that in the last four years, officers here have shot over 300 people killing nearly half of them.”

George Lavender:
Even though police shootings had been happening for years and are of course still happening today, the killing of Eulia Love received a lot of media attention. That put pressure on the department to respond. The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners recommended changes to training and the way shootings by officers were investigated.

Roman Mars:
And the killing also led the department to research non-lethal weapons to see if there was some alternative that might reduce the LAPD’s reliance on guns.

Greg Meyer:
We needed to find a way to control people. Was there something that we could do before we had to shoot them before they had an opportunity to attack and get shot?

Roman Mars:
That’s Greg Meyer. He’s a retired captain with the LAPD. And in 1979, he was given the job of researching non-lethal weapons for the department.

Greg Meyer:
And what we were looking for was something that was effective at subduing a person, so that they could be handcuffed expeditiously without a big fight.

George Lavender:
Meyer and the LAPD set out to find a new tool that they hoped would help avoid needless deaths and injuries. The police chief at the time, Daryl Gates, told the Los Angeles Times, ‘What we need is that thing you used to see in Buck Rogers. That thing he used to zap them, freeze them, stop them’.

Roman Mars:
Ever since the beginning of policing, officers have been looking for tools to subdue people that they consider threatening. When police first started to patrol the streets of America’s cities, many carried sticks.

George Lavender:
In 19th century New York, cops actually had two sticks to choose from, a shorter stick for the day and a longer one for the nighttime because it was thought that more dangerous criminals would come out after dark.

Roman Mars:
That bigger stick became known as the nightstick. It’s gone by other names too – the billy club, truncheon, baton.

George Lavender:
By the early 1900s, lots of police departments across the country were equipping their officers with guns, but nightsticks remained the alternative weapon of choice.

Roman Mars:
In the 1960s, that began to change. There was a lot of interest in using new weapons to control large crowds of people. Many of those weapons like tear gas came straight from the military, but some police departments started using a new electrical weapon – the cattle prod.

Darius Rejali:
They’re designed to move cattle by providing a very focused pain on the body.

George Lavender:
That’s Darius Rejali. He teaches political science at Reed College and has written about the history of electrical weapons and torture.

Darius Rejali:
There are usually two electrodes separated by about two inches and they provide a sudden sharp blast of voltage, which moves a person to comply with commands.

Roman Mars:
Police began to use cattle prods against protesters during the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to attack dogs and fire hoses.

Darius Rejali:
Cattle prods emerge in the hands of the Alabama and Mississippi police as early as 1961. And by 1964, they had become quite common and also quite contentious.

George Lavender:
Because people objected to being treated like cattle.

Roman Mars:
In 1963, a New York Times article described Alabama highway patrolmen using cattle prods on a group of African-American freedom walkers. The Times reported, “as one of the Negroes flinched and twisted in the grip of the four troopers, an elderly toothless white man shouted from a roadside pasture, ‘Stick them again. Stick them again.'” People were offended by these stories and images.

George Lavender:
But there were also proponents of electrical weapons who thought they were better than bludgeoning people with sticks.

Richard Doherty:
“Better a few joints of electricity than a knockout blow on the head.”

Roman Mars:
That’s Richard Doherty, a former deputy police commissioner of New York City advocating for electrical prods on ABC in 1968.

Richard Doherty:
“What is a nightstick after all? It’s a club. It’s no stick. It makes the cops look like ugly primitives when they use the thing, and it makes the people who get hit as well as the thousands who watch such scenes on television hate the police more than before. Now, why does this have to be? Why in this age of science and alleged enlightenment do our police have to use a weapon that is right out of the Stone Age?”

Roman Mars:
As it turned out, an inventor named Jack Cover was thinking about these questions too. Instead of a weapon from the Stone Age, he wanted to create one right out of the Space Age, but whether it would be any more enlightened is debatable.

George Lavender:
Cover worked as an aerospace scientist and had been involved with NASA’s Apollo Program. In the late ’60s, as images of protests and police violence saturated the nightly news, Cover came up with an idea, a weapon that would temporarily immobilize a person at a distance using electricity.

Roman Mars:
For several years, Cover worked to develop this device and finally he created something that worked. He named his new invention after a science fiction novel from his childhood called, ‘Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle’.

George Lavender:
In the book, Tom Swift’s electric rifle is a lethal device that fires balls of electricity that can pass through walls and penetrate armor. Cover’s electric rifle, on the other hand, was intended to be non-lethal, something that could be used to incapacitate a person without injuring them.

Roman Mars:
To name the weapon, Cover took the initials from Tom Swift’s electric rifle, T.S.E.R.

George Lavender:
And then, he added an A to make the word easier to say.

Roman Mars:
Taser.

Archive Tape:
“Get her a new Space Age weapon that stuns, but not does not kill the victim. Science Editor Jules Bergman has details in this report.”

Jules Bergman:
“It’s called a taser. And they claim it’s the first alternative to the gun. It looks like a large flashlight. You shine the beam to light up the target, press a switch and it fires two darts at the intruder.”

George Lavender:
The taser used a small gun powder charge to fire the two metal darts. The gunpowder meant that some of the early tasers were categorized as firearms.

Jules Bergman:
“A tiny powder charge propels the bond darts, which are attached to fine wires. The wires carry 50,000 volts of current from a rechargeable battery in short spurts.”

Roman Mars:
When both the darts hit a target, the electricity would flow along the metal wires causing the muscles to tense up involuntarily.

Jules Bergman:
“The high voltage darts hit, cling to the clothing and send a charge that temporarily paralyzes muscles, incapacitating the attacker. The darts conduct right through the clothing. They don’t have to penetrate flesh.”

George Lavender:
The cattle prods police departments had been using delivered painful jolts of electricity to make someone move. The taser, on the other hand, used electricity to immobilize them.

Roman Mars:
Cover patented his weapon for immobilization and capture in 1974, and set about approaching police departments across the country to see if they were interested in buying his invention, but he didn’t get much traction at first.

Greg Meyer:
It’s important to recognize that in its early days, police were absolutely not interested in this weapon. They could imagine what would happen if a, I think I believe the line was, “a crazy hippie grabbed the end of a taser and wrapped it around the neck of a policeman with all this electrical wire.” Nobody wanted to go near it with a 10 foot pole.

George Lavender:
So, Cover tried to find other buyers like the army, but that didn’t work out.

Greg Meyer:
He then tried the airline industry. He wanted to create a light device, one that could be handled by a female stewardess to incapacitate a would-be terrorists or hijacker, I guess in those days.

Roman Mars:
But airlines ended up addressing their hijacking problem with the introduction of metal detectors and x-ray machines that screen passengers and their belongings before they got on the plane.

George Lavender:
Throughout the ’70s, Cover kept tweaking the design of his taser and shopping it around to potential customers, but except for a handful of small police departments, it really didn’t have much success. Then finally in 1979, he found a good match, one of the biggest police departments in the country, the LAPD.

Roman Mars:
As it turned out, the taser seemed to be exactly what the department had been looking for, a device the police could use to quote, “zap them, freeze them, and stop them.”

Greg Meyer:
So that they could be handcuffed expeditiously without a big fight.

George Lavender:
Since the killing of Eulia Love, Greg Meyer at the LAPD had been searching for an effective non-lethal weapon. The department looked at things like chemical sprays, beanbag rounds, and rubber bullets.

Greg Meyer:
We also looked at all kinds of contraptions, including nets and something called the action control chain that was very complicated.

George Lavender:
Meyer says, “The LAPD even spent a day at the Los Angeles zoo to see if it might be possible to use tranquilizer darts.”

Greg Meyer:
They were not ready then and they’re still not ready now for human use, too dangerous. Too many animals die when tranquilizer guns are used and that’s when they already know the animal’s diet and weight and habits.

Roman Mars:
So when Cover came along with his taser, the department was intrigued. But first, Meyer needed to see how it might work.

Greg Meyer:
My job was to figure out, okay, is it really a good idea? Does it really work in real life on the street, not just in a testing environment, but in real police situations out there?

Roman Mars:
So the LAPD took the taser out onto the streets of South Los Angeles and began to test it, actually using it on people they were trying to subdue and apprehend.

George Lavender:
At first, the device didn’t do what the police wanted and so they asked Cover to increase the power, which he did. And then they took it out for more testing.

Greg Meyer:
And within just six or 10 days, you know, we knew we had a winner.

George Lavender:
The LAPD put in an order for several hundred tasers and other police departments would soon follow.

Roman Mars:
Today, tasers are a huge business. Almost all tasers used by police in the US are made by one company, ‘Taser International’ founded by two brothers, Rick and Tom Smith. In the early ’90s, the company worked with Cover to expand on his original invention. Over 80% of all law enforcement departments in the US now use tasers.

George Lavender:
When Jack Cover died in 2009, his wife told the New York Times that he believed his invention had saved 100,000 lives.

Roman Mars:
But of course, the story of tasers is way more complicated than that. For one thing, it’s tough to say if tasers have or have not saved lives. Data on both police shootings and taser use are notoriously unreliable here in the US, and even if they’re not designed to be lethal, tasers still produce an incredible amount of pain.

George Lavender:
I know that firsthand because back in the summer of 2015, I volunteered to be tasered. Will I be able to drive?

George Lavender:
“Will I be able to drive home afterwards?”

Ed Clark:
“Yes, you will.”

George Lavender:
I met up with two taser instructors who work for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Deputy Chris Saldana and Deputy Ed Clark. Both of them have been tasered before and they tell me the only thing I have to worry about is ruining my shirt.

Ed Clark:
“It’s going to get blood, and it’s going to get holes in your shirt.”

George Lavender:
“You mind me taking it off?”

Ed Clark:
“I don’t care. I don’t mind.”

George Lavender:
“Okay, we’re on then.”

George Lavender:
The tasers used by the LA Sheriff’s Department have changed a lot from the models first developed by Jack Cover. For a start, they look much more like guns. The one Clark is holding in his hands looks a bit like a plastic toy gun, black with a yellow stripe on the side.

Roman Mars:
Modern teasers also use compressed gas instead of gunpowder to fire, which means they’re no longer considered firearms. But the basic function has remained the same. When it’s fired, both darts have to connect with the target to form a circuit. Each taser cycle typically lasts five seconds.

George Lavender:
“So I should lie down, right?”

Ed Clark:
“Yeah.”

George Lavender:
So I don’t fall and hurt myself, they asked me to lie down. As I get onto the floor, Clark asks if I want to be able to tap out early? Meaning, stop the electric shock before the five seconds are up.

George Lavender:
“I think if I tap out, then I’m happy to go shorter.”

George Lavender:
Then Clark raises the weapon and points it at my back.

George Lavender:
“I’m getting ready.”

Ed Clark:
“Taser, taser, taser.” (sound of taser firing)

George Lavender:
“Ahhhhh.”

I lasted for about two or three seconds before I had to tap out, more than enough time to know that I wanted to do whatever I could to make it stop. I think what I remember most was just not being able to focus on anything except the feeling in my back or across my body. For those two seconds, it felt like my entire body was out of my control. It was the most intense pain I’ve ever experienced.

Roman Mars:
After George had recovered, the instructors had to pull the taser barbs out of his skin.

Instructor:
“Twist and pull. Really the only medical care to be rendered is a Band-aid, so it’s not like a big hook that’s going to tear a hunk of flesh.”

George Lavender:
My back was sore for a few days and it took about a week for the puncture wounds to heal, but the memory of the experience stayed with me for longer. I kept replaying it over and over in my head for several weeks afterwards.

Roman Mars:
And the fact is, George had it easy. Most people who get tasered don’t do so voluntarily. They don’t have the option of tapping out when they’ve had enough. And in the real world, the effects of tasers can be much worse.

George Lavender:
Tasers are now referred to as less-lethal weapons rather than non-lethal. In part, that’s an acknowledgement that any weapon can be fatal. Even a blow from a nightstick can kill someone. There is no use of force that is completely safe.

Roman Mars:
According to a report by Amnesty International, medical examiners have listed tasers as a cause or a contributing factor in more than 60 deaths in the United States between 2001 and 2012.

George Lavender:
And a 2014 article in the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that the taser could cause cardiac arrest. Taser International’s training materials warn that its weapons can “cause death,” but the company has released statements stressing that they are “generally safe.”

Roman Mars:
After Eulia Love’s death in 1979, the LAPD set out to find a new weapon to reduce their reliance on guns and improve their relationship with the community, but it’s not clear that tasers are succeeding at this central purpose even in the majority of cases when they don’t contribute to a person’s death.

Tom Nolan:
The use of these weapons really drives a wedge and between the police and the communities that they serve. These weapons and seeing them deployed seems on its face to be somewhat barbaric.

George Lavender:
That’s Tom Nolan.

Tom Nolan:
My name is Tom Nolan. I’m an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. For 27 years, I was a City of Boston police officer.

Roman Mars:
The taser didn’t solve the problem of excessive use of force or police shootings. In fact, some researchers have found that cops are reaching for their taser far too quickly and too often in situations that don’t justify it.

Tom Nolan:
The more weapons we have, of course the police are going to use them. I mean it’s become the default compliance tool.

Roman Mars:
And while information on taser use across the country is patchy, in several jurisdictions there is evidence that they’re being used disproportionately on people of color, juveniles and people with mental health issues. In a 2016 Department of Justice report found that in Baltimore, Maryland, police use of tasers was often “unnecessary and unreasonable”. Additionally, the Baltimore Sun found that people were sometimes being tasered for longer than the 15 second limit Taser International recommends. In one case, a black man named, Anthony Howard was tasered nine times for a total of 37 seconds. He stopped breathing and died shortly afterward. Video of the incident shows that when Howard was first tasered, he was standing still holding a child’s scooter. After he dropped the scooter and fell, officers continued to shock him.

George Lavender:
Tasers were originally sold as a way to respond to dangerous situations like the kind where someone had a knife without having to resort to using a gun. But Nolan says, that’s not how they’re being used.

Tom Nolan:
I think the concern that we should all have is that the police are using these weapons unnecessarily in situations where someone has just, as they say in the police world, ‘someone has flunked the attitude test’.

Roman Mars:
The real solution to the issue of police-community relations isn’t a tool or a technology.

Tom Nolan:
The alternative to this is to initiate institutional change and cultural, subcultural change in police agencies. That’s something that is extraordinarily difficult to undertake, let alone accomplish.

Roman Mars:
That’s a change we have to undertake even if it is extraordinarily difficult because there is no magic bullet.

Comments (5)

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  1. PSUAth

    Volts of electricity. Volts and current are two measurable. That’s like saying gallons of inches.

  2. My brother was held down by 5 cops and repeatedly tased. 10 years later, he still struggles with PTSD and mental health issues associated with the incident. It changed his life. It’s no secret that some police (not ALL, some), are masochistic, and use their power to inflict pain for pleasure. One has to wonder if an alternative to tasers that incapacitated but did inflict any pain would be more or less popular as a pacification device.

  3. ALP

    Why were the Smith brothers not asked to comment. Why is the old version of TASERs more of the focused, rather than the current version. To address anon’s point – TASERs are not based on pain compliance as they were when Jack Cover developed them. Besides the fact that this is arguable torturous, it wouldn’t work on people that were oblivious to pain, such as being high on PCP. So the Smith brothers and team redeveloped it to be a neuro-muscular incapacitator. That means it uses a current to make your muscles contract, rendering them useless. Just like flexing your bicep.

    I do agree with the last paragraph though. That is the issue here.

    As someone who has voluntarily been exposed to a TASER, I can attest that after the five seconds, it was over. There were no lingering side effects besides a slight sorenesss (akin to after doing a workout). There was no pain though. After five seconds, you can stand up and walk away. I don’t think you can say the same about a gun, a billy club, a knife, a baseball bat, fists…. the list goes on and on.

    10/10 I would rather a police officer, citizen, etc. have a TASER and use that as a control device/weapon/etc. Once we accept the last paragraph, we can work on regulating the use of it. But if the goal is to minimize damage/pain/death, then in cases of proper and improper use, the TASER is still the best choice.

  4. Guru

    Fuck the vast majority of all Police. There are a small amount throughout the world who are intelligent, calm, and reasonable while most are angry robbers who steal money from hard working people for their over funded governments.

    They are necessary but have too much power and are able to enforce too many laws. They should not be given guns or quotas.

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