'Killing Them Safely': Film Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival


A persuasive call for the reevaluation of cops' Taser use

How "non-lethal" is a Taser?

Note: Killing Them Safely was reviewed at the 2015 Tribeca Film Fest under the title Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

An important account of shifts in policing tactics and the problematic interaction between law enforcement and private companies, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle follows the history of, and controversies surrounding, Taser stun weapons. Eye-opening for viewers who have only heard scattered coverage of these controversies, Nick Berardini's film lets company execs speak at length but clearly views much of what they say as spin, at best. It should build buzz at festivals and with any luck will draw many eyeballs on TV, where it will be valuable evidence in debates that should have happened years ago.

Berardini offers a quick account of how researcher Jack Cover's 1969 invention wound up being licensed by brothers Rick and Tom Smith, who upped the amount of electricity it delivers to victims in an effort to make it an effective non-lethal alternative to handguns. But he very quickly starts finding reasons to question the "non-lethal" part of the Smiths' sales pitch. Dramatic security footage shows a Vancouver Airport incident in which confused Polish traveler Robert Dziekanski was mistaken for a threat, tased several times and died on the scene. Other incidents follow, often with video forcing one to ask why officers felt the need to pump electric shocks into citizens who presented no threat to themselves or anyone else.

Of the two immediate questions here — the device's safety and the wisdom of using it so liberally — the film focuses mostly on the first, talking at length with product liability lawyers, civil-liberties figures and doctors who vigorously dispute the company's safety figures. These figures look incredibly flimsy as a result, bordering on fictional; set alongside deposition footage of the Smiths, who project a deeply creepy evasiveness, one wonders how the heads of police departments could take Taser's word for the guns' safety without doing their own testing.

If Berardini isn't very generous to the company's execs, shortchanging what is likely a genuine belief that they're doing good while making a ton of money, he does spend time with officers who, for a time, embraced the Taser eagerly. The Warren, Michigan police department adopted the weapon in 2006 and made it a crucial part of their arsenal. After a death made them question the safety stats they'd been given, they took Tasers off the streets — and eventually found that their officers were no less safe without them.

Production company: Boxcar Films

Director: Nick Berardini

Producers: Brock Williams, J. Goncalves, Nick Berardini, Glen Zipper, Ralph Zipper

Executive producers: Paolo Coppola, Neeraj Kohli, Ross M. Dinerstein, Dan Balda, Nat Havkin, Randy Sinquefield, Erik Williams

Directors of photography: Nathan Truesdell, Scott Schaefer, Brock Williams

Editors: Robert Greene, Brock Williams, Nathan Truesdell, Bryan Storkel

Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair

Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

No rating, 94 minutes