Wednesday, May 13, 2015

HotDocs 2015 Film Review - Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

As happens often with documentaries Director Nick Beradini had a different story in mind when he first went to TASER International to interview Senior Executive Steve Tuttle. Beradini planned to do a story on one taser incident but as he gathered more information he decided to do the feature on the Taser itself, the stance of the company leaders that it saves lives and the cases of serious injury or death that have occurred.

Beradini begins the story with Taser founder Jack Cover who was inspired by a space story that he read as a child Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. The theory being using a stun gun instead of live bullets would be a better option in most cases. The film opens with Cover testing on Bison's then jumps ahead a few years to when Patrick and Tom Smith decide to buy Cover's patent. The Smith brothers early testing showed the device did not have enough stopping power. This changed with the decision to up the wattage 50,000 volts. The brothers invited law enforcement departments to bring their toughest guys to their offices in Scottsdale, Arizona and they were all stopped cold by the new improved Taser device.

Beradini speaks to the employees at Taser, lawyers who have brought suits against the company doctors and academics on both sides of the safety debate. Detractors point to the limited charge times in the testing vs. the extended multiple applications in the field. The devices can cause extreme lactic acid build and put the target into cardiac arrest either of which could lead to death. The film also points out that the company knew of the link to cardiac arrest as far back as 2006 but did not inform their law enforcement partners.

The most compelling part of the piece is the depositions taken from the brothers and Senior VP Steve Tuttle for one of the lawsuits. The executives appear to be almost blind to the fact that their device could cause any harm at all. CEO Patrick Smith often points to the founding reason for the company to save lives repeating his founding story of two friends that had died during road raid incident that could have been avoided if Tasers had existed. They cling to their saving lives argument pointing to the fact that they are used by 17,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries. Even their website features a counter of human lives the device has saved.  The other is the Robert Dziekanski case at the Vancouver Airport. The Polish immigrant was confused, disoriented and ended up dead after being Tasered by the RCMP.  The Smiths attended the Braidwood inquiry in Vancouver and continued their practice to deflect the death to the victims themselves. Proclaiming as they have in all 300 death cases that the victim would have died due to other underlying health problems if the taser was not used. A favourite reference is to the cases of athletes who die during an event due to previously unknown health reasons.

Beradini stays mostly down the middle of the road during the piece. He does point out that of all the suits that were brought against the company they have only lost one and that original verdict was greatly reduced on appeal. The company did begin to advise law enforcement agencies that they should stop aiming for the chest not for safety reasons but instead for risk management. Taser International also pledge to defend the agencies that use their device but they failed to do so for the Warren Michigan police service after the death of a teen who in turn stopped using the devices. Beradini also touches on the lack of outside training options, no regulation on the devices or the necessary medical training needed in the field to recognize the signs of excessive lactic acid build up or  the onset of cardiac arrest as in the heart wrenching case of 23 year old Stanley Harlan the original case that Beradini wanted to investigate who's slow motion death from multiple tasers following a traffic stop across the street from his home is caught on police dash cam as his mother watched the events unfold.

*** 1/2 out of 4

Tom Swift and His Electric Rife | Nick Beradini | U.S.A. | 2015 | 100 Minutes.

Tags: Jack Cover,  TASER, X26, Cardiac Arrest, Braidwood Inquiry, Law Suit, Moberly Police Department.

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