AT ONE POINT in Killing Them Safely, Nick Berardini’s new documentary on Taser’s bloodless response over the last decade to the charge that its stun guns have caused hundreds of cardiac deaths, CEO and co-founder Rick Smith gives a wistful PowerPoint presentation to an enthusiastic audience. One slide depicts the old corporate liability proverb of the shark and the coconut tree. The shark, so the story goes, swims faster, has more teeth, and inspires great terror, yet many more people die every year from coconuts falling on their heads than from shark attacks. “We tend to focus on things that perhaps capture our imagination more than the facts,” muses Smith. Whether or not falling coconuts actually pose a deadly threat, there has been only one fatal shark attack in the U.S. this year, but according to a recent Guardian investigation47 people died in the first 10 months of 2015 immediately after being tased by a police officer.
No doubt Smith meant to admonish those who claim that Tasers are deadly, but his shark parable could be read sideways too, as a statement of purpose. Taser’s business model, founded on a strategic appeal to concerns about safety, depends on the inherent slipperiness of facts. In his film, Berardini makes the case that there’s something fanatical in Taser’s enthusiasm for risk management, for finding language both to create and resolve any imaginable threat.
Two brothers, Rick and Tom Smith, founded Taser International in 1993. That year, they released their first stun gun, the…