Rick Smith is not your typical CEO of a law enforcement technology company. Most of his counterparts are either the heads of major corporations that make a variety of products for business and industry and produce public safety tech as a sideline, or they are former officers themselves.
Smith is neither. Public safety is not a sideline at Axon (formerly TASER International), and his first experience working with law enforcement was when he started the company.
Before starting TASER in his garage and working to build on the invention of NASA engineer Jack Cover, he was actually headed for a career in high finance.
Smith’s plans changed in 1993 while he was celebrating his impending graduation from the University of Chicago’s MBA program. That night in a Chicago bar he received tragic news from back home in Arizona. Two of his best friends had been shot to death in a road rage incident.
As detailed in Smith’s new book, “The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem,” (www.axonrick.com) he decided that night to dedicate his life to developing and improving less-lethal weapons so that lethal weapons would no longer be the only option for people who want to bear arms for protection.
Now, Smith wants to take that mission a step further. He is challenging technology companies to develop weapons that can replace handguns as the best option for stopping lethal threats against police officers by the end of the next decade. He admits the idea is controversial, but he believes it will give officers better options, minimize the controversy around police use of force, reduce police liability, and save officers from suffering the personal repercussions of killing in the line of duty.
POLICE Editor David Griffith recently interviewed Smith about the book and about why his futuristic vision of less-lethal weapons that are more reliable and effective than handguns is not science fiction.
POLICE: What’s made you want to write this book?
SMITH: When I started TASER International, the vision wasn’t just to create another force option for the lower end of the spectrum. I wanted to create non-lethal weapons that outperform lethal weapons, to make the bullet obsolete in some cases. I now think we’re within a decade of hitting that goal of making a less-lethal police pistol that can incapacitate a person faster and more reliably than bullets fired from a handgun. So I wanted to write the book now and start the conversation about this and not wait until we’re on the precipice of launching such a system. I also wanted to lay forth a vision that will spur my engineers and developers toward this goal. There’s nothing that motivates a team as well as a public commitment.
POLICE: You write that killing is a technology problem. Can you provide a brief explanation of that concept?
SMITH: When police use lethal force, the justification for it is never that person deserves to die. The intention is not to kill the subject; it is to stop the threat presented by the subject. And when I say killing is a technology problem, it means that today, the process of reliably stopping the subject is linked with this concept of killing the subject. And that is a limitation of the technology we have today. The firearm is the most effective way to stop the subject. And it has this really bad side effect: It can kill the person you just stopped. If you could create a gun that stopped the subject more reliably, without killing them, then there are very few situations where police would choose the lethal option. Imagine we’re in a world where we have a weapon like the “Star Trek” Phaser that has an unlimited number of shots, it’s highly accurate, and it is 100% effective. As soon as it touches a subject, that subject goes down. If you had that weapon, then there would be no legal justification for lethal force. In my conversations with police, I have yet to come across a scenario where officers say, “No, we would actually still use the lethal weapon.” So you get the point when I say killing, especially for law enforcement, is a technology problem. Killing the subject is almost never the intended legal purpose when an officer pulls the trigger. And that’s the technology problem we want to solve because we want to separate those two concepts: incapacitation from death.
POLICE: What are some of the technological hurdles that Axon or any other company would face trying to produce such a weapon by 2030?
SMITH: I would say multiple shot capability is super high priority. Our current TASER weapons are still only two shots. Clothing penetration is another big one. The TASER weapons of today penetrate the clothing most of the time, but the next generation will need one-hundred-percent reliability going through clothing. Then there’s accuracy. With a TASER you have to get two projectiles on the subject [to close the circuit], so accuracy is more of an issue than you have with a firearm. Future TASERs may include some computer-assisted aiming. If you had a camera on the weapon with some computer-assisted targeting, that would ensure the projectiles are targeted in a way that they’re going to both impact the subject. And then beyond that, we get into range. But from talking to police experts I believe the optimal range for this weapon is 30 feet. Beyond that, at least for a while, officers will have to use firearms.
POLICE: To extend range, wouldn’t you to have develop a method to send electricity toward someone without having a wire?
SMITH: Today, that’s really science fiction. We haven’t seen a practical way to do that. Also, wires work really well to carry the energy to the subjects. I think these new weapons would still be a system where there’s power supplies and wired connections, but they would be quite a bit more sophisticated than we’re seeing today.
POLICE: Some of this book discusses how the desire for the perfect has been the enemy of the good in the development of less-lethal weapons. Non-lethal weapons have been bedeviled by the incidents where someone dies, even though that was not the intent. How do we get beyond the idea that every weapon intended not to kill has to be shelved because it isn’t always non-lethal?
SMITH: This book has been helpful in reframing that discussion. Up until recently, you know, any press interview I did with the general media tended to come with a very negative tone because it basically focused on edge cases where there were bad outcomes with our products. The book has given me a platform to say, “Yes, these weapons are imperfect, but they are much safer for the subject than firearms.” The problem is they’re just not as effective today. The book has shifted the tenor of those discussions to allow us to focus more on how to make progress forward.
POLICE: Part of the book covers the Raytheon Active Denial System (ADS), a directed energy system, that made people feel like their skin was burning without any major tissue damage. That technology had great promise for the military and possibly for law enforcement but the project did not progress because activists labeled it a torture device. What does that say about the future of non-lethal weapons?
SMITH: I thought it was very helpful to me that the ADS was a case that didn’t involve our own product. It gave me a great example that was clearly not self-serving. Because here’s a competitor that exited the business. Now, I think one of the things that’s different there was because Raytheon is a huge business there’s only so much stamina for the headaches that come with driving this level of change. I do wonder if that had been part of a startup where the only path forward for the people working on it was to overcome those obstacles, if it might have made a difference. I think that’s what’s made a difference with us.
POLICE: You’re kind of walking a tightrope with this book because the audience that you have in law enforcement and the military tend to like guns; they shoot guns for fun. Firearms are part of their culture. So how did they respond to this?
SMITH: There tends to still be a lot of skepticism. And I think that’s where I just have to continually hammer home that the point isn’t to take away any existing option. I think there are still going to be hunters and sport shooters. I’m not saying take the guns away. But I am saying you may soon carry another weapon that looks more like the things you see in science fiction and is more reliable and effective than a firearm at short range and doesn’t kill. Most of the officers I talk to about this get pretty excited about it because it would reduce public outrage and reduce agency liability and personal liability for the officers.
POLICE: The book is for sale on Amazon, and I looked at your online reviews. They were all either five stars or one star. And most were five-star reviews coming from readers who self-identify as military or police. What do you make of that?
SMITH: It’s a very polarizing topic. But I think the one-star guys…I actually don’t think any of them read it. Because when I read those reviews, it seemed like they saw the picture of the gun and the title “The End of Killing,” and they just reacted and thought this guy wants to take our guns away. And if they read the book then they still might disagree with me, but I think they would see that’s not what I’m saying.
POLICE: You write that a huge amount of killing is preventable, either through technology or policy changes. We talked about technology. What policy changes are you referencing?
SMITH: When practical, reliable less-lethal weapons can outperform firearms in close-range police work, there is going to come a time where use-of-force policy and the way officers are trained will have to evolve. For example, in many situations officers draw their firearms today anticipating the possibility of a deadly threat. In the future when officers are in that situation, policy might say an officer should have this really effective, less-lethal force in hand, not their firearms. And again, I’m not criticizing officers for drawing their firearms today because they don’t have another option. But when that time comes, the technology changing alone isn’t going to be enough. We are going to have to change the practices and training and the policies around it.
POLICE: I think a lot of people now see Axon as a body camera company. But with this book, it appears you are declaring that you are still a less-lethal weapon company. Are you stating a goal that Axon is going to do this?
SMITH: One-hundred percent. The non-lethal weapons are at our very core. We changed the name of the company to Axon because it was broader. “Axon” doesn’t carry a plain English meaning. When I say axon, you don’t immediately say, “Oh, an axon is a camera.” Whereas when I say “TASER,” you think electrical weapon. The TASER brand is the brand for our electrical weapons, and always will be, and we remain fully committed to those. And when I think about the hardware produced by Axon, TASER is at least as important as our cameras. And ultimately, I think TASER is where we can have the most transformative effect. I’m obviously really proud of our cameras. But the unique thing we can do that will really make the world different is if we can continue to advance the capability of the TASER weapons.