Police Tasers are meant to save lives by curbing the use of force, but a new documentary alleges that the weapons are more dangerous than they appear and many officers who use them do not understand their potentially fatal consequences.
In Killing Them Safely, filmmaker Nick Berardini chronicles his investigation into why a device marketed as a harmless alternative to the handgun has now, according to his research, led to the deaths of an estimated 900 people.
“The reason you don’t hear a lot about Tasers as opposed to shootings is that there’s a universal understanding with both police officers and the general public about what a gun does,” Berardini tells PEOPLE. “The public has this idea that Tasers are used in place of deadly force, and that goes back to good marketing by TASER International.”
(TASER has not responded to several requests for comment.)
The short clip includes a few interview snippets, including one unseen voice uttering “It was pretty clear to me that this was Taser-induced cardiac arrest.” Another voice is heard saying, “Nobody told us these were going to kill people.”
Berardini argues that police are using Tasers in relatively low-risk situations because “they were trained that it only hurts for a second but is otherwise perfectly safe.” But Berardini claims that as a result of poor training and misinformation, “what ends up happening is that they are dangerous in certain situations, especially with people who are shot in the chest, or with people who might be on drugs, and they kill people whose lives should never have been in jeopardy.”
It was one of these allegedly unnecessary deaths that drew Berardini into his investigation. During his senior year of college at the University of Missouri, the young journalism major heard about a 23-year-old named Stanley Harlan who was killed by police not far from his college campus.
“He was Tasered to death right in front of his parents,” the filmmaker says of Harlan, who died after being Tasered in the chest for 31 seconds on Aug. 28, 2008. At first, Berardini wanted to make a movie about the effect Harlan’s death had on his tight-knit community. But as he began investigating fatalities associated with the allegedly harmless weapon, he realized there was much more to the story. “As a student I began making a film about a small town that became a much broader story about this company, TASER International, and their rise from almost broke, idealistic entrepreneurs to now one of the most controversial companies in America.”
The clip, meanwhile, also includes footage of a man who appears to work for TASER who says “TASER’s saving lives. That’s the business that we’re in. We’re protecting the truth and we’re protecting lives.”
Killing Them Safely, which earned accolades at the Tribeca Film Festival under its previous title, Tom Smith and His Electric Rifle, opens in theaters and VOD on Nov. 27.