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Taser: An officer's weapon of choice

Taser: An officer's weapon of choice 13:27

The Taser sounds like the perfect law enforcement tool. Simple, effective and generally safe, it allows officers to subdue a suspect using electricity rather than resorting to blunt or deadly force. But a recent study found that some officers may be too quick to use the popular stun guns when conventional procedures would suffice. As David Martin reports, there's growing concern that Tasers may be inflicting unnecessary pain and, in rare cases, lead to death.

The following is a script of "Taser" which aired on Nov. 13, 2011. David Martin is correspondent, Mary Walsh, producer.

The hottest thing in police work these days is the Taser, a device which sends painful jolts of electricity into the human body, throwing muscles into uncontrollable spasms. Police see it as a whole new way of controlling people without injuring either themselves or the suspect.

Frequently the mere sight of a Taser will convince a criminal to give up without a fight. It is so effective police are sometimes too quick to use it, subjecting people to excruciating pain for no good reason. Some have even died after being hit by a Taser.

David Martin's world: Tasers, ray guns & nerve gas
As National Security Correspondent for CBS News, David Martin has put himself in harm's way many times. But David drew the line at getting zapped by a Taser

Whatever you think of Taser after watching this story you better get used to it. Taser is now used by more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. It all started when two brothers - Rick and Tom Smith - founded TASER International and set out to corner the stun gun market.

Tom Smith: We believe in what we're doing. We have changed the world. Very few people can say that.

By Tom Smith's count more than 500,000 law enforcement officers in the United States now carry Tasers. He and his brother Rick have taken what began as a backyard experiment and built it into a policeman's weapon of choice - a device which uses electricity to subdue unruly suspects without having to resort to the blunt force of a billy club or the deadly force of a firearm.

Rick Smith: The idea of using electricity to incapacitate at its core is, frankly, a beautiful and simplistic idea. That rather than causing death or injury to someone, if we can just temporarily take away control of their body and get them under control, it's about as nonviolent as you could get.

The Taser uses compressed gas to fire two small darts - attached to copper wires. When they pierce the skin, the electric current flows through the body seizing up the muscles and sending the suspect crashing to the ground screaming in pain.

Geoffrey Alpert: This is a whole new device. It's a whole new way to control people.

Geoffrey Alpert has written what to-date is the definitive study of Taser use for the National Institute of Justice.

Alpert: When used properly, a Taser is a very effective tool in law enforcement.

David Martin: Well, then I guess the question is, do police use a Taser properly?

Alpert: Well, that's the million dollar question.

Alpert's study found instances of what he calls "lazy cop syndrome" - using the Taser instead of proper police procedures.

Martin: So, Taser is now the go-to weapon?

Alpert: Yes sir, we see very often that Taser is the, is what officers turn to very quickly now in an encounter.

Martin: Are they using them too quickly?

Alpert: Some are. Some are using them way too fast.

One of the police departments Alpert studied was Austin, Texas where a police officer was suspended for three days after this traffic stop.

[Driver: I have no idea why you are asking...

Cop: Get out of the vehicle. Take your seat belt off and step out of the vehicle.]

The driver had been going five miles over the speed limit.

[Driver: I have no idea why you're...

Cop: Get to the back of the vehicle and put your hands on the door!

Driver: Hey!

Cop shouting: Get to the back of the vehicle - (shoots Taser)]

Las Vegas was one of the first big city police departments to issue Tasers to cops on the beat. Marcus Martin, the department's chief Taser instructor, says that in the first year they were used more than twice as often as they are now.

Marcus Martin: When you consider in 2004 we had 573 uses. We're down to 247 at the end of 2010.

David Martin: Does that say officers were too quick to reach for the Taser at first?

Marcus Martin: I can only be frank with you. I think there might have been those instances. But that's the same with any tool that comes along. Again, we have to go back and we have to train that out of those officers.

With all its high-roller entertainment and hard-party glitz, Las Vegas may be the only city in America where police end up in a standoff with a suicidal Elvis impersonator.

[Footage: Elvis gets tased]

And casualties are down on both sides - the number of suspects who had to be taken to the hospital after they were arrested has gone down every year since Taser was brought in. And so has the number of policemen injured.

Marcus Martin: Right now Taser's - appears to be the best tool out there. And it's changed the face of police work forever.

David Martin: That's a bold statement.

Marcus Martin: That is a bold statement.

David Martin: Why do you make a statement like that?

Marcus Martin: There's a lotta misinformation out there, but the real information eventually does come out. The truth does come out that this person is alive today, and that person is alive today, or this police officer is not harmed today because of this less than lethal device.

The first Taser was invented by space scientist Jack Cover. He designed it to look like a flashlight, fired it using gunpowder and named it for one of his science fiction heroes- the Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle - Taser. The Smith brothers struck a deal with Cover and then they re-engineered his weapon.

They drew straws and went out in the backyard to take the first hits from their new improved Taser- first Tom, then Rick, standing in a pool of water.

Today they run a worldwide business from their over-the-top headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona which the Smith brothers designed from the ground up as a corporate statement.

Tom Smith: This is an iris scanner.

[Scanner: Identification is completed.]

Tom Smith: Allows access to the building without the need for keys.

David Martin: They don't have those at the Pentagon, you know.

Tom Smith: I did not know that.

It is part fortress, part tribute to Star Trek.

Tom Smith: We, certainly, again, wanted that projection of high-tech - that we're on a cutting edge. We're making things that are, you know, right out of Hollywood. We're the wired version of a Star Trek phaser.

The Smith brothers may not have invented the Taser, but they certainly turned it into the household name it is today. They took a device that had been fired by gun powder and converted it to compressed gas. That freed them from all the regulations which govern the use of firearms and turned Taser into a $100 million a year company.

In the eyes of federal regulators getting rid of the gun powder converted Taser from a firearm to a run of the mill consumer product and that allowed the Smith brothers to corner the market.

Geoffrey Alpert: It moved it from a regulated weapon to an unregulated tool that allowed not only police officers but civilians to use them without any kind of mandated training or with any kind of mandated rules.

The production line turns out about 100,000 Tasers a year with a combination of one-of-a-kind technology and old-fashioned manual assembly all the way down to attaching the darts to their wires.

David Martin: How much of a jolt does it put out?

Tom Smith: It's putting out about 2.1 milliamps. It's a very, very low current. The battery that runs this is basically the same battery that would run a digital camera.

So while the voltage is high the amount of electricity or current the Taser puts out is low. And that's the difference between being electrocuted and living to tell about it.

Frederick Bealefeld: I'm not a huge fan.

Baltimore's Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld may be Taser's most reluctant customer.

Bealefeld: I recognize, one, the utility of this device. It makes the public safer in a lot of situations. It has helped contribute, in some measure to reductions of deadly force.

David Martin: But you're not a fan?

Bealefeld: On a personal level, no. I'm absolutely not a fan.

Bealefeld is a third generation cop who believes there are better ways than Taser to avoid the use of force.

Bealefeld: If you don't emphasize the training, and that's a key component, and the oversight, the use of them - it could lead you down a path of over dependence on that device. That's been a chief concern that I've had. That we don't substitute our basic responsibility to a short-cutted method of deploying a Taser to get people to comply.

And he believes that, even though the Baltimore police department has used Tasers for over 10 years.

Bealefeld: Even now less than 500 of the devices are deployed across the whole police department. I have 2,800 sworn members.

David Martin: What do the ones who don't get a Taser think about it?

Bealefeld: They're clamoring for 'em.

Officer James McCartin has carried a Taser for three years.

David Martin: Do they all want it?

McCartin: I think everyone wants one, yes.

David Martin: You know they're not all going to get it. I just talked to the commissioner.

McCartin: Well, I got mine.

Sergeant Harvey Baublitz who patrols Baltimore's inner harbor with its tourists and night life has only used his once but it frequently comes in handy.

Harvey Baublitz: The carrying it, the having it with you is a big deterrent down here, you get large crowds, protests, maybe some of the clubs maybe get out of hand. They see it, they want to go. They don't want to play with it.

Taser is well-known to the YouTube generation. Millions of people went online to watch the famous "Don't tase me bro!" Incident when a student disrupted a John Kerry event at the University of Florida in 2007.

[Don't tase me bro!]

David Martin: It looked like they had him under control.

Alpert: Well, if those officers couldn't control him without using a Taser, they need to be retrained and they need to be disciplined.

Alpert calls this video of a distraught man refusing to go to the hospital "a sad day for law enforcement."

Martin: Do you ever look at Taser on the Internet and say 'No, no, no. That is not how you use a Taser?'

Rick Smith: Yeah. There have been cases where you look at it and you go, 'Boy, you know, what were they thinking?'

And then there are the tragic but rare cases like that of 17-year-old Darrell Turner who in 2008 was fired for stealing snacks from the grocery store where he worked.

John Burton: He's very upset. He thinks he's been treated unfairly.

John Burton is an attorney representing Turner's family in a lawsuit against Taser.

Burton: He'll push this display off the counter, here.

Police were called.

Burton: Now here's an officer who's pulled his Taser out already, as he's walked in the store, now you can see the laser sight of the Taser on his chest. And now he's tased.

But Turner doesn't go down. The darts are too close together and don't incapacitate enough muscles. So the police officer keeps tasing him.

Burton: And now he is collapsed on the floor and he never moves again. I think the only explanation is that the electrical shocks from the Taser device caused this young man, to, to have cardiac arrest and die.

A jury agreed and awarded $10 million to Turner's family, a verdict Taser has asked the judge to set aside. Taser has been sued 192 times for allegedly causing injury or death and has lost only one other case. Because the Turner case is still in court, the Smith brothers won't talk about it. But in other cases they argue strenuously against assuming the electric shock is the cause of death.

Rick Smith: That's a common sense thing people jump to. But let me take the argument from a different angle.

David Martin: What's wrong with common sense?

Rick Smith: If people tend to overact, overreact and immediately want to pin it on the electricity because it's something they don't understand.

Police have tased nearly one and a half million suspects. According to Amnesty International 485 have died afterwards.

Rick Smith: The vast majority of those, there was a clear other cause of death. It includes people who died of a cocaine overdose if you neck it down to the cases where there is legitimate scientific debate that the Taser may have caused the death, we're talking about less than 20 over a decade.

In that same decade Taser has run off all its competitors, established a virtual monopoly among law enforcement agencies and is now pushing into the consumer market.

Tom Smith: You know, our intent is to make a tool that protects life. And those incidents are tragic but it's unfortunate it happens.

David Martin: Let's be fair about this. You're on a mission to save lives. You're also on mission to sell Tasers. Correct?

Rick Smith: That's true.

David Martin: If your intent is to sell Tasers, the more Tasers out there, the better your business, why should we accept your statements on the safety of Tasers?

Rick Smith: You shouldn't. We are not impartial, not the experts, but the science is really pretty compelling that while Tasers - we're not risk free. But we take the most dangerous situations and we make them safer.

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