Over the weekend, Minnesota police officer Kim Potter shot
and killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop, leading to protests outside the
Brooklyn Center police station. Before she resigned on Wednesday, Chief Tim
Gannon of the Brooklyn Center Police Department said he believed Potter meant
to use her Taser, but mistakenly fired her gun.
The error of mistaking a pistol for a Taser has happened
before and could well happen again, even if the nonlethal option is typically
bright yellow and not quite the same shape and feel as a pistol. As seen in
previous cases, it’s possible but very rare that officers, who carry both
weapons, grab the wrong one in stressful situations, says Anthony Guglielmi,
former communications chief at the Chicago Police Department and now doing the
same job at the Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia. He says that with
the right training, this kind of error shouldn’t happen, given a Taser should
be in a holster on the opposite side to the gun and turned in a different
direction. A spokesperson for Axon, the company that owns Taser and was
previously known as Taser International, declined to comment on the shooting of
Wright, but told Forbes there were numerous safeguards against such mistakes.
“This includes building Taser energy weapons to look and feel different than a
firearm: A Taser device has a different grip and feel and is lighter than a
firearm; is offered in yellow to contrast a black firearm; a LED control panel
lights up when the safety is taken off; and it is contained in a holster that
is different and separate from the officer’s firearm.”
But Rick Smith, the cocreator of the Taser and now CEO of
the $10 billion market cap nonlethal weapon’s manufacturer, Axon, believes his
company will make an electric stun gun that will make the police pistol
redundant within a decade. “We’ve got to outperform the police pistol. . . . I
think we’ll get there, where, by 2030, we’re going to have nonlethal weapons so
good, it will actually be a faster time to incapacitation more reliably than a
police pistol,” Smith says.
“Five years ago, I would have said you never take a Taser to
a gunfight. And I’ve started to challenge that and say, ‘Well, what if the
Taser is the better gun?’ And what if it’s actually more effective—it just
doesn’t leave the other person dead.”
Smith, who spoke to Forbes a month before the weekend’s
shooting, knows that right now, the Taser isn’t the perfect nonlethal weapon.
Sometimes the barbs that hook on to a target to deliver the electric charge
don’t effectively penetrate heavy clothing. The Taser also only gives you two
shots, so if you miss both or can’t get through whatever the target is wearing,
it’s unlikely to be effective in a high-pressure situation. "They're still
not as effective as a gun. Why do the police still end up shooting and killing
people? Because that is the most reliable way to stop a threat,” Smith says.
To improve the Taser, it isn’t a case of how to make it more
injurious, or more powerful, says Smith. The company needs to figure out how to
more effectively get the Taser’s barbs to latch on to a target and deliver the
electrical charge, ensuring it gets through thick clothing and has a better
chance of hitting a person who might be moving fast or erratically. “For us,
it's a delivery question, how do we engineer so that with 100% certainty, we
can get the effect on the target where we want it in fast-moving situations in
the field,” he adds. “We don’t have to go create phasers, or any new really
sci-fi stuff. All the science is pretty clear. This is an engineering problem.”
What tech the company has actually made that’s getting them
closer to that milestone is a mystery. Smith won’t divulge any secrets. But
there may be some clues as to what the next Taser looks like in a previously
unreported patent, which shows off a stun gun with multiple loading bays, held
in a kind of tripod. It might look like something out of a sci-fi writer’s
dreams (or nightmares), but the patent application, which Smith coauthored, is
an attempt to address that “engineering problem” with a gun that can fire more
electrodes over a wider area than the current version of the Taser. It’s
designed to “provide a greater initial spread between the one or more
electrodes to increase a likelihood of causing NMI [neuromuscular incapacitation]
in a target.”
Axon files a Taser patent with futuristic looking gun.
A new patent filed by Taser could be a sign of things to
come from Axon, which is hoping to make police pistols redundant by 2030.
The average police officer might not be the Pollyanna that
Smith is when it comes to the future of force. Some won’t want their pistols
replaced; others won’t believe a Taser will ever be as effective as a gun.
Guglielmi says both his former agencies in Chicago and Fairfax, Virginia, have
tried to move to models that focus on the sanctity of life. He says that if
Taser could produce the kind of weapon Smith is talking about, they’d happily
put down their guns. “We would absolutely explore something like that,” he
says. “Our goal here is not to kill people. Our goal is to incapacitate a
threat. So if officers had a magic wand, where they could incapacitate a threat
without killing somebody, absolutely it would be used.”
Taser ‘different in look and feel’ from a gun
The Taser is just one strand of Axon’s plans for further
growth. Thanks to its substantial body-worn-camera business, its online
evidence storage software, and its burgeoning drone division in collaboration
with $1 billion-valued Silicon Valley startup Skydio, the company has seen its
stock skyrocket in the last two years. In the last year alone it’s doubled.
Going back in 2018, it was valued at around $25. In February, it peaked at
above $200 before settling back down to $150 this month.
Its most recent results show $680 million in revenues for
2020, $230 million coming in the fourth quarter. One of the biggest wins of the
year was a $20 million order for Tasers from an unspecified international
customer. The quarter saw revenue of $136 million for the Taser division, which
grew 62% year over year.
As concerns around aggressive American policing grow, so
does Axon’s value. Neither have yet solved the problem of police killings, not
to mention the startling rise in deadly violence across America.