Killing Them Safely—a documentary on Tasers, the men that sell them, and the police forces that wield them—opened at IFC Center this weekend. Directed by Nick Berardini, the film uses police interviews, legal testimony, and TASER International's own company research, as it crafts a portrait of dangerous weapons that can, and do, kill.
Killing Them Safely begins with the story of Rick and Tom Smith, the brothers who eventually brought modern Taser weapons to the marketplace and sold them to 15,000 police departments across the globe. Their company, TASER International, made millions doing it, and found a winning strategy in painting their weapon as a space-aged silver bullet—a tool "to protect truth and to protect life." It's a nice thought, but, as the film makes plain, is only a marketing pitch.
We see dashcam footage of Taser victims being fatally shocked for 30 seconds straight spliced with police chiefs sighing in regret over the moments their Taser training failed them. But what proves most chilling are the statements of TASER International executives—men incapable of contemplating their weapons as anything other than panaceas of justice.
Killing Them Safely isn’t an anti-police film, and it’s not even an all-out demonization of Taser’s manufacturers. What Berardini asks of us is a more nuanced way of thinking, and the willingness to cast off easy assumptions about violence and law enforcement and embrace the complicated truth. On the morning of its IFC opening, the director spoke with Gothamist about what he hopes to achieve with his work.
How did the filming process start? I had never really done anything before. I started shooting this movie about Stanley Harlan's death—the 23-year-old who died in Moberly, Missouri from a Taser. I started shooting that, thinking it was going to be this observational portrait about this small town that had been really fractured by what had happened to him.
And as I kept making that film, it became clearer and clearer that the reason that the police acted this way was beyond just their own aggressive behavior. It spoke to their mentality and the way they were trained, and what they thought about this Taser. Then, I basically started asking Taser International for access.
My take on it was that I would go talk to them over the course of a few hours...and that they would probably capitulate that, especially in my case, "Yeah, sure, if you shoot somebody for 30 seconds in the chest, it could kill them and we don't recommend that." I expected a more complicated point of view, initially, about these deaths. And that didn't happen at all.
And then you realized that you were at the beginning of a much bigger project? What happened that day—I don’t know exactly why it was so Orwellian. It was the most surreal place I've ever been to and the most bizarre day I've ever had in my entire life. But by the end of it I knew that TASER was way more complicit in the officers' behavior than I ever expected going in. Because of the way that they talked about the weapon—because of their adamance that no one could die. It seemed like whatever was happening beneath the surface at TASER needed to be figured out.
Do you really think the people at TASER are entirely cynical—that they know in their heart of hearts that this is a dangerous product that they’re selling under false pretenses? Or do you think they are real believers? I don't think they're intrinsically evil people. I think the movie is about how we shift moral standards based on our environment, and then use that shift to justify a lot of decisions.
It's very much about the way these men see themselves and justify their decisions, compared to the reality of these decisions. Can they look in the mirror and face it? I think if they were honest about it, they would have a really hard time dealing with that collateral damage.
How would you compare the attitude and ideas that arose in speaking to TASER’s people, versus when you were speaking directly with police officers who had used or misused—benefitted or been hurt by—Tasers? The people at TASER have insulated themselves, whereas the police officers are the ones actually dealing with it personally. And that’s what becomes really tragic: you see how this company started as an idea, maybe even an altruistic idea, but became a company that has to prioritize itself first.
it's pretty shocking to learn in the film that the TASER company itself is writing many of the force manuals and handbooks on when and how to use them. This sort of thing has a very real, permanent effect on the lives of human beings. It happens very surreptitiously, because a lot of officers don't know the master instructors who certify their own instructors are police officers paid by the company as independent contractors. Taser is a weapons manufacturer, and so there's a willful encouraging to ensure that the weapons are used.
And they're willfully telling them that this weapon can end any confrontation. Instead of de-escalation, using words, or crisis intervention training. And the public assumes that the weapons are alternatives to deadly force—that only in these high-risk scenarios are officers supposed to use Tasers. And so when they get misused, what happens is everybody goes, "Oh, why did the cops do that?" without thinking about the weapons manufacturer who's playing a huge role in this conversation.
I wanted to make this a three-dimensional movie where they have to at least consider looking in the mirror and saying, "Are we really who we think we are?"
But then, what can we do? What are the solutions to draw from the film? What we could start with, at least, is to ask TASER to stop talking out of both sides of their mouth. Say that yes, Tasers can kill. It may be rare, but it’s happening. And so you need to consider that someone in these situations can die, and it's not an urban legend.
If the weapon is going to continue to be so popular, you need to be very judicious in the way that you're using them.
The problem though, is that that might curb the way officers use them, and they're so expensive. I mean TASER International, what I find really just heartbreaking, is that in a lot of ways they need this collateral damage. They won't say that it's because the weapons are so expensive. They won't say that if they're used 900 times a day, there's a significant risk that in one of those 900 instances, someone might die. Based on media reports, it's an estimated one or two people per week are killed in Taser uses. It's going down because officers have more practical experience— but now they've been sued and been caught holding the bag.
In the long term, maybe it does make sense to consider really scaling down how many Tasers are out there, because it provides officers with a crutch. And if they're not really well trained—and again the company is controlling a lot of that training—are they going to be used appropriately?
Killing Them Safely screens at IFC Center through December 3rd // Tickets and showtimes here