Tase Me, Bro

Despite fresh scrutiny, Taser use by the cops continues to grow

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Family and friends of Israel Hernandez walk behind his casket as they attend his burial at the Vista Memorial Gardens & Funeral Home in Miami Lakes, Fla., Aug. 14, 2013.

Tasers are again under scrutiny following the recent death of a Miami Beach teenager who had been tased by police as they tried to arrest him. But those who would have cops holster their stun guns are in for a jolt of disappointment: Tasers, law enforcement experts say, aren’t going anywhere. Years of shrewd marketing to police departments have made stun guns as elemental to a cop’s arsenal as a badge, and an occasional death allegedly tied to their use is unlikely to change that.

The latest incident involved 18-year-old Israel Hernandez, who cops were chasing for graffiti last week when one shot him with a Taser stun gun. He “displayed signs of medical duress” once in custody, police said, and was pronounced dead an hour after the cops first spotted him. Whether “tasing” Hernandez was necessary — and whether or to what it extent it contributed to his death — remains a subject of pitched debate in Miami Beach, and the matter is under independent review by a Florida state agency. Autopsy results have yet to be released.

But regardless of the outcome, Tasers are a growing part of the police arsenal across the country, and all signs point the weapon’s spread continuing. Despite years under the microscope — most famously, in the pop-culture zeitgeist, when a University of Florida student pleaded with cops in 2007, “don’t Tase me, bro!” — the weapon has found a permanent place in the tool kit of nearly every police department in the country.

“It’s a fairly huge industry and lots of agencies around the country have them,” said Leslie McGill, executive director of the California Police Chiefs Association. “For now, they’re here to stay.”

About 16,500 of the 18,000 police departments in the country have purchased Tasers for at least some of their officers, a big increase from 4,300 departments 10 years ago and 14,000 as of 2008, according to Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, which dominates the market for electroshock guns. The weapon has been used in the field almost 2 million times, Tuttle told TIME.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company’s sales numbers illustrate the weapon’s rise within law enforcement since the popular Taser X26 model hit the market in 2003. In the first six months of 2013, boosted by the release of the new X26 Smart Weapon, the firm had more than $58 million in revenue on the sale of almost 41,000 Taser models. Ten years ago, sales during the same period totaled less than $8 million.

And the company has proved wildly successful at marketing its products to cops, with a former New York City police chief and a retired military officer among the members of its board over the years.

“Taser is one of the only companies that exists primarily to serve law enforcement departments, security forces, those types of thing. And I think that’s unique,” said Steve Dyer, a senior research analyst at the investment banking firm Craig-Hallum Capital Group. “A lot of the other equipment that police officers use come from a company that’s marketing to a whole bunch of different constituencies.”

Sales have grown despite intense pressure from civil rights groups that call for stricter restrictions on police use and argue that, particularly when misused, Tasers can cause severe injury or death. Amnesty International, which called for a moratorium on Taser use in 2008, reported last year that at least 500 people have died after being shocked by a Taser.

Law enforcement officials, while conceding the danger if Tasers aren’t used properly, have been unmoved by campaigns to retire them.

“I can’t think of a single case in the United States where a department has abandoned use of the Taser altogether because of a case,” said Michael White, an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, who has analyzed reports of Taser-related deaths.

Researchers like White say that the weapon, when used properly and with appropriate training, remains a “tremendous tool” for police to deescalate violence and avoid injury to suspects and officers alike. Tuttle calls the weapon “the most [researched] less-lethal weapon on an officer’s belt today.”

A Taser fires two dart-like electrodes that attach to the body and release an electrical pulse that causes the subject to lose muscle control. The weapon significantly changed the way police handle non-lethal situations, replacing traditional options like the baton or pepper spray. It’s intended to offer an intermediary step in what law enforcement calls the use-of-force continuum that guides police action from verbal commands to the use of deadly force.

“It gives officers another tool to be able to work to get a suspect into custody without having to go with lethal force,” said Jodi Silva, a spokesperson for the Houston Police Department, which uses the most Tasers of any department, with more than 5,000 deployed. “And it’s been successful with that for us.“

Distribution has reached such a high level in the United States that the company is increasingly depending on upgrades for revenue, according to Dyer.

“From a penetration standpoint, you’re certainly getting into the mid-to-late innings in North America,” Dyer said. “If you talk to most police officers, most of them will say it’s one of the if not the most valuable tool on their belt.”

In fact, the only thing that seemed to slow spread of Tasers in police departments was the recession, which battered the budgets for police departments around the country. Dyer said sales began rising in the mid-2000s, but plateaued during the recession as cash-strapped departments cut back on purchasing the weapon, which can cost more than $1,000 retail (law enforcement agencies generally receive discounts).

But agencies have recently taken out their check books to acquire or upgrade their arsenal.

“If anything has affected their sales if you will, it hasn’t been the scrutiny, it’s been the budget crisis,” White said.

The weapon’s next phase may be in the international market. Taser International already sells to 5,000 departments worldwide, according to Tuttle, leaving plenty of room to grow.

Activists say stronger restrictions on the weapon’s use must accompany its growing role in law enforcement.

“Of the hundreds who have died following police use of Tasers in the United States, dozens and possibly scores of deaths can be traced to unnecessary force being used,” Susan Lee, then the Americas program director at Amnesty International, said in statement last year following the death of another man who had been tased. “This is unacceptable, and stricter guidelines for their use are now imperative.”

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the analyst at Craig-Hallum Capital Group. It is Dyer, not Dryer.