On Tuesday, May 31, the Roxie Theater will host a screening of Killing Them Safely, a documentary about electronic control weapon manufacturer Taser International. Filmmaker Nich Berardini started the project when he was just 24, investigating the death of a man who had been tased by police officers and died. Public Defender Jeff Adachi will join Berardini for a Q&A session after the screening. We chatted with Berardini to reflect on a few aspects of the film.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mission Local: Honestly, for most of the film, my impression was that its message was that Tasers really aren’t that bad, but it’s the officers who misuse them that are causing major problems.
Nick Berardini: The biggest thing for me as a filmmaker was, I was trying to get people to engage with the point of view of this company and see how the decisions they made were affected by what a lot of us would be affected by, which is this idea that we have to act in our own self interest to survive.
The thing that to me was essentially dangerous [is that Taser International], from a very early stage, controlled the training for this weapon and told these officers that it was safe in order to get them to use it more. And they had no evidence to suggest it was safe and by the time they realized, they willfully concealed that because their entire business model was built around trust.
ML: The discussion in San Francisco is very heated right now over whether to equip certain officers with Tasers, and even though the department, acknowledges that they can kill someone, there’s a very strong feeling that they are at least a better alternative than shooting someone.
NB: That’s part of what the marketing of the weapon is. It sells you on a hypothetical that sounds very true and makes sense. Of course people would rather be tasered than shot. Of course if suspects are being threatening, we would rather see them be tasered than shot.
They’re not alternatives to deadly force, they are pre-emptive tools that are used in a situation that might escalate to the use of deadly force.
What’s problematic about using something like the Mario Woods case is it speaks much more to the officers’ willingness to use force quickly than it does about [what would happen with the use of a Taser]. Most officers will never fire their service weapons.
[Taser International] estimates that they’ve saved 160,000 lives at this point. [That comes from] a study done that said out of 425 taser uses, 5.4% of those Taser uses were in a situation where deadly force was imminent. [Then they multiplied] that 5% by the total number of Taser uses in the world. Even if you accept that, then you’re still looking at only 5% of Taser uses being used in a case where lethal force was imminent…95% of these Taser uses are still at very low or intermediate use of force.
ML: But many police departments still believe very strongly that what Taser says is true. Why?
NB: Great marketing. They’re on message. The average police officer believes that the public doesn’t really understand his or her job, which is probably fair because a lot of people don’t…
And taser comes in and says, “The public doesn’t understand you, the danger you face. We do, we’re here to serve you.” It’s basically like they almost have a nonprofit service message while they’re a corporation.
I think they are true believers. There is no doubt in my mind that they are totally not disingenuous about what they believe – They believe that these weapons are essential, it’s just that they’re wrong. They’ve come to believe this on a false set of ideals and their own self interest is rooted in them believing their own rhetoric and that’s why I find it to be a movie about a cult…About guys who are part of a culture who can’t see themselves as what they’ve become, because if they did it would be devastating.
ML: What do you think about Taser winning the bid for SF officers’ soon-to-be-rolled-out body cams?
NB: It’s the next wave. [Taser International Co-founder] Rick Smith is a really smart guy and he knew years ago that they had to start diversifying, because even if the weapon didn’t kill people, there was a sort of a market cap on how many departments would buy these weapons at $1,500 a piece.
It’s not about the revenue generated from the Taser sale, it’s about being a company trying to establish, again, a monopoly in the body cam market [just like they did] with Tasers, but the difference here is that they have competitors.
They should be controversial, because the logistics of implementing them properly haven’t necessarily been figured out right now. We haven’t figured out who’s gonna get access to the footage, they haven’t figured out storage. Taser, unlike many other providers, makes a fortune off the storage. Departments, a lot of times, find themselves caught off guard by just how expensive the software is.