BODY CAMERAS AND TASERS RAKE IN BILLIONS FOR AXON, BUT THEY‘RE NO PANACEA FOR POLICE VIOLENCE
By Jonathan Ben-Menachem, The Appeal
Last August, Cincinnati police officer Kevin D. Brown tased an 11-year-old Black girl who was suspected of shoplifting food, sparking outrage and a review of the city’s use-of-force policy. This year, Minneapolis resident Clifford Johnson sued the city and two police officers after he was tased during a mental health crisis. “The use of the Taser caused Mr. Johnson to suffer a severe mental breakdown, which required hospitalization for approximately 10 days and then a prolonged period of outpatient treatment and recovery,” the lawsuit said.
Despite such incidents, Taser and body-worn camera manufacturer Axon continues its meteoric rise. Stock of the publicly traded company rose from about $13 per share in May 2014 to approximately $67 per share in late May this year, an increase of 415 percent. In 2018, CEO Rick Smith netted a $246 million compensation package, a sum that’s “about 20 times the median pay” for the CEO of an S&P 500 company, according to the Wall Street Journal. Axon’s ethos is best articulated by Smith himself: “Killing is a technology problem. We kill because, today, it is the most reliable way to stop a threat. But we can imagine better solutions.”
Today, 17,000 of America’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies use Tasers as a “less lethal option.” But the biggest beneficiaries are police themselves, who experience 76 percent fewer injuries when the stun device is available. Tasers do not make policing less lethal for civilians: In February, Reuters published a piece documenting more than 1,000 deaths after the use of a Taser since its introduction 20 years ago, and there’s no evidence that police use of the device led to a reduction in the use of firearms, or reduction in use of force.
Worse, technology like Tasers widens the net of policing nationwide. As Yale law professor Monica Bell wrote in 2017, real reform requires “shrinking the footprint of armed bureaucrats” who are “performing functions that supplant work ideally done by the welfare state and social services.”
Tech doesn’t address underlying police problem
Pervasive police use of force is not a crisis that can be solved with tech alone. Indeed, Tasers often serve as an excuse for police to abandon de-escalation attempts. A 2018 study by Rutgers sociology professor Michael Sierra-Arévalo underscores that technological solutions to excessive force do not address “persistent features of police training and culture that socialize officers into an ‘us versus them’ orientation that frames the public as potential threats instead of fellow citizens and allies.”
Importantly, Sierra-Arévalo discovered a generational gap in police use of Tasers. As one police sergeant told him, “Younger, inexperienced officers … quickly resort to the Taser, and they don’t use a lot of what we call verbal judo or their communication skills.” In interviews, other veteran officers confirmed this phenomenon, noting that rookie eagerness to use Tasers coincides with a sense of self-preservation and an unwillingness to risk physical harm that can be part of de-escalation. Another sergeant put it more succinctly: “These kids coming out of the academy love tasing people. We used to use our hands.”