Killing Them Safely is a serviceable summation of the history of the Taser’s efficacy. The documentarians have interwoven newspaper stories, training videos, presentations, TV news stories, segments of “60 Minutes” and “Nightline,” and a handful of current interviews, to good effect.
The tone of the film is disturbing from the start. A video shows one member of a herd of buffalo repeatedly brought to its knees by an electrical shock, while the off-camera operator of the shocking device comments, to the amusement of a small audience. The technology was adapted for the purpose of subduing humans, but a reliable product wasn’t developed until 1999, when the power was increased considerably. The Taser was marketed aggressively to police departments as a completely non-lethal tool for subduing the belligerent. And then things went wrong. Police started using the device indiscrimately, hitting people with multiple Taser darts and zapping children and the elderly. And here and there, people died.
The manufacturer insisted that the Taser was incapable of killing; people who died were just fated to have a heart attack anyway. (Even today, employees who build the device insist, cult-like, that their product is innocuous.) And those representing the victims of Taser abuse bore the burden of proving the biological mechanism that made Tasers dangerous. The film carefully tracks the series of lawsuits and the medical research; it makes a nice, suspenseful story.
And then there’s the kicker/spoiler: Police forces that stopped using the Taser haven’t seen a rise in injuries to their officers. But the Taser company will be okay; they’ve gotten into the business of making body cameras.