When Silicon Valley investor and Axon board member Hadi Partovi strutted onstage to address a packed crowd at this week’s TASERCON event, he did it to put to rest a nagging critique often levied at the policing tech company’s top executives. If the so-called “non-lethal” electric-shock weapons, Axon’s patented Tasers, are really so safe, why won’t anyone from the company step up and submit themselves to their effects?
“That’s what I’m here to do,” Partovi said to a round of applause.
A few moments later, a police officer in uniform walked on stage and shook the board member’s hand. The officer widened his stance, drew a Taser from his holster and yelled out, “Taser, Taser!” Barbs shot out of the device and into Partovi’s pant legs. After a slight delay and an audible “OUCH” the board member’s legs buckled beneath him as he collapsed on the floor. The camera pans away as aides walk over to Partovi’s squirming body. The audience claps.
The cry of “Taser!” echoes the shouts of police in Southern California earlier this month, when an unarmed Black man died in Los Angeles Police custody. The difference: Keenan Anderson, 31, was tased six times in under a minute, all while handcuffed on the ground. Partovi endured just one zap, falling comfortably onto soft mats.
When asked by a moderator a few minutes later about being tased, Partovi responded, “It was pretty good!”
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“I don’t think I want that to happen again but it was much better than the alternative,” he added. Partovi livestreamed the demonstration to his Twitter account.
Partovi’s lighthearted tech demo, if it can be called that, was part of an event announcing Axon’s latest product, the Taser 10. Axon, itself previously called Taser, is best known for creating the now ubiquitous “conducted energy device” used by approximately 94% of domestic policing agencies in the U.S. Axon founder and part-time comic book writer Rick Smith says he designed Taser with a lofty long term goal in mind: to “make bullets obsolete.” Partovi cribbed from the motto in his tweet about his own tasing, praising “Axon’s commitment to protect life and obsolete the bullet.”
Axon claims its newest Taser 10 has double the range of its previous electric weapons, with a maximum range of 45 feet, and improved accuracy and penetration. All of those improvements are meant to work towards the company’s stated “moonshot” goal of cutting gun related deaths between police and the public by 50% in 10 years.
“In this live stream, I won’t be risking my life to expose myself to a Taser,” Partovi wrote. “I won’t even wear protective gear. I’ll demonstrate that the Taser is designed to save lives. Its goal is anti-violence.”
Though Partovi’s live demo was intended to showcase the policing tech company’s commitment to safety, it comes after Anderson died in LAPD custody on January 3rd following his encounter with an officer’s Taser. That officer, according to LAPD Police Chief Michel Moore, activated the device more than six times in just 42 seconds. Partovi, by comparison, was zapped just once. Anderson was taken to a hospital following his encounter, where he died four hours later. Members of the victim’s family believe the officer’s use of the Taser may have contributed to his death. A coroner’s investigation is still ongoing, and an official cause of death has not been released. Lawyers representing Anderson’s 5-year-old son filed a $50 million claim against the LAPD this week, alleging officers acted negligently and “mistakenly activated a taser repeatedly.”
Axon did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment about Anderson’s death.
“The media spreads myths about Taser because fake news makes money,” Partovi tweeted January 24th. “But misunderstandings compromise Axon’s important mission to reduce gun-related deaths.”
What happened to Keenan Anderson?
Anderson, a charter school teacher and cousin of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, began his fatal encounter with the police following a traffic collision, which officers on the scene claim he was responsible for. According to police, Anderson exhibited “erratic behavior,” and, after initially complying with their requests, attempted to flee.
An officer pinned Anderson down and lodged an elbow into his back. Eventually, one of the officers drew his Taser and electrocuted Anderson in the back, activating its electrical charge twice from a distance. Then, according to the Los Angeles Times, the officer switched the weapon into a stun mode, which applies the shock at a closer range, and jolted the injured schoolteacher at least four more times.
The LAPD released body camera footage of the event this week. In it, Anderson can be seen yelling out, “Please help me, they’re trying to kill me,” as a pair of officers worked to subdue him on a roadway. Anderson screamed out “They’re trying to George Floyd me,” just seconds before being repeatedly shocked with the Taser. The LAPD, meanwhile, claims they found cocaine and marijuana in his blood.
Several policing experts who reviewed the body cam footage told the L.A. Times they believed it showed signs of officers using excessive force. “It’s is going to be hard to convince any judge that these officers were using reasonable force,” Northern California deputy and a top state advisor on police tactics Ed Obayashi said. Obayashi speculated that certain signs of Anderson “resisting” in the video could also be interpreted as an “automatic reflex” from the Taser electrical shock.
In a press conference following Anderson’s death, Moore, the LAPD Chief of Police, said there were six separate Taser activations over 42 seconds. Officers, Moore said, should, “generally avoid repeated or simultaneous activations,” though he admitted there aren’t official limits on the amount of times they are permitted to fire the device, and thus no consequences for overenthusiastic use. Now, Moore says the LAPD is looking into whether it can modify its Tasers to limit the number of times an officer can fire it. Moore said he would reach out to Axon to see if the company could put in place a “stoppage” that could be activated after the officer’s first squeeze of the trigger.”
Tasers: Less deadly, but still lethal
Though Axon’s marketing material—and by extension Partovi’s demo—advertise its weapons as non-lethal, real-world police encounter data paints a far more complicated picture. Tasers have led to the deaths of at least 500 people since 2010, according to reporting by USA Today and research from fatalencounters.org. Other reports, like this 2016 investigation conducted by the LA Times, found that out of 1,100 times the weapons were used by LAPD officers, they only actually worked 53% of the time.
Civil liberties experts have similarly taken issue with Axon’s claim that its products lead to a clear cut decrease in police related violence. In a previous interview with Gizmodo, ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Carl Takei argued Tasers have actually counterintuitively led to greater police use of force, not less.
“The broad deployment of Tasers and other less-lethal weapons have actually increased the use of weapons overall,” Takei said. “There’s a sort of scaling up of harm and force because of the existence of these additional technologies.” Body cameras meanwhile, another major product area Axon’s advertised as a way to improve law enforcement transparency, have simultaneously introduced more cameras with the effect of swelling the amount of video data gathered by police.