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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Taser head a born salesman who needs dose of compassion

May 14, 2008
Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun

Tom Smith made a great presentation, but seemed indifferent to victims

Tom Smith, chairman of Taser International, rode through Vancouver this week like the proverbial western sheriff come to rid the city of outlaws.

In appearances at the provincial Braidwood inquiry into Taser use and on various media outlets, the American maverick gunned down what he considered the various myths and lies people have been spreading about his cherished conducted energy weapon.

It was an impressive performance by the entrepreneur from Scottsdale, Ariz.

I thought his best prop was the tiny rechargeable lithium battery from a digital camera.

He held it up and told former B.C. Court of Appeal justice Thomas Braidwood that the same battery powered the Taser.

Nothing more.

You can get a static shock from a doorknob that will measure between 35,000 and 50,000 volts, he said: The same as a Taser's 50,000 volt output.

Go to the Science Centre and you can put your hand on a generator putting out 20 million volts; it makes a kid's hair stand on end.

It's the amps that matter. And a Taser puts out less than .004 amps, or less than one joule, compared with a defibrillator that puts out between 150 and 400 joules.

You can receive a six-amp shock from the 100-volt wall outlet . . . .

Smith went on and on. It was a great sales presentation.

He had an answer for questions no one had even thought to ask. And videos to go with each, most tastefully stopped before their denouement because, well, they were pretty brutal.

Smith gives the same dog-and-pony show dozens of times a year. A born salesman with a product the world seemingly wants, he is enthusiasm personified.

The British home secretary, he said, promised to arm every bobby with a Taser if the current pilot-project deployment is a success. Smith noted 95 per cent of police officers in the United Kingdom don't want to carry a gun, but 96 per cent want a Taser.

It's the same on the continent. NATO, European governments, to listen to Smith is to believe everyone loves the stun-gun.

Unlike pepper spray or a baton, he boasted his product is practically guaranteed to bring a suspect down with minimal injury because it is scientifically designed to interfere with the body's muscular control system.

What could possibly be better? What offered lower risk or better outcomes?

Smith initially sold the Taser to individuals as a personal protection device and only in the late 1990s began selling to the professional military and policing markets. Although they are illegal in Canada, today in America you still can buy a purse-sized, designer-model Taser for personal protection.

There are lots of features built in to ensure accountability, Smith maintained, including tiny identifiable tags released when the Taser is discharged that can later be used to trace the weapon. As well, some models include cameras that record as much as 90 minutes of video and sound starting from the moment the device is activated.

Smith insisted that saying Tasers cause death was like saying air bags caused deaths because people died in car accidents in which air bags were deployed.

Like air bags, Smith said, Tasers save lives, emergency care resources and workers' compensation costs for law-enforcement agencies. They are no more dangerous than playing professional sports.

"Are Tasers risk-free?" the chairman asked rhetorically. "No -- they cause people to fall down."

What a sense of humour. And that's part of the problem here.

When he extolled the virtues of the Taser and arrogantly insisted it had revolutionized law enforcement, Smith sounded like a character from the creepy fascist Omni Consumer Products in the sci-fi series Robocop.

Like Paul McCartney's ex-wife in her divorce battle, Smith is his own worst enemy --his smugness in the face of the current body count feels offensive.

For anyone who has lost a loved one after a Taser incident, his overweening self-assurance must come across as hard-hearted indifference. Smith would do well to leaven his future presentations with a dose of compassion.

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