There's a memorable scene in the old Dirty Harry movie "The Enforcer" starring Clint Eastwood. A group of hippie terrorists want to take the mayor of San Francisco hostage, so they set up an ambush of his limo. They shoot the driver and the bodyguard. Then they pull open the door and use something that looks like a flashlight to shoot a lightning bolt and jolt the mayor into unconsciousness.
Watching that film was my first exposure to the TASER. And I was really impressed by it. Here was a handheld tool that would almost instantly knock somebody out but not kill them. I was convinced that TASERs were the coolest weapon on the planet.
And I was hoodwinked by Hollywood magic. Those early TASERs were not nearly as effective as they were shown to be in "The Enforcer."
The first TASERs that were issued to law enforcement carried an 11-watt punch. By the time of the Rodney King incident, the manufacturer had reduced the power down to 7 watts. Which is one of the reasons why the TASER used by the LAPD on King didn't have anywhere near the same effect as the fictional one did on Dirty Harry's mayor.
Back in 2002, I wrote my first major article for Police Magazine on TASER safety and it included this discussion:
Capt. Greg Meyer (now retired and an expert on less-lethal weapons) of the LAPD adds that the 11-watt Taser the LAPD used in the early '80s was much more effective than the later 7-watt model. "It was very successful at dropping violent PCP suspects on hundreds of occasions," says Meyer.
But the 7-watt Taser clearly wasn't as effective on hopped-up suspects, as revealed by the King incident. And Taser manufacturers also soon learned that you didn't even have to be drugged to withstand a 7-watt stun gun.
In 1998 when Taser International first began marketing its products to law enforcement, the company was embarrassed by several incidents during demonstrations of its 7-watt Air Taser 3400. The last straw came at a police training demo featuring Hans Marrero, a former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and unarmed combat instructor. "I shot him with it, and he turned around and looked at me," says Stephen Tuttle, Taser International's director of government affairs. "He said, 'That's a pretty good weapon. If you'd shot me by surprise, you might have had a chance of taking me down.'"
The raucous laughter of police ringing in his ears, Tuttle went back to his office and met with the owners of the company. "We'd learned that someone really focused could fight through a 7-watt system. We had a field success of 86 percent [with the Air Taser], but we had just seen one of the top 14 percenters. We knew we had to find something to stop guys like that."
Long story short, TASER went back to the drawing board and produced the M26. And people stopped laughing at this weapon. Subsequently, the company produced the next generation the X26, which is now nearly as commonplace on the belts of officers as a handgun. The X26 delivers 26 watts.
Back on March 3, 1991, when LAPD officers confronted the then very large and resistive Rodney King, one of the first tools they tried to use on him was a TASER. They shot him twice with it. To very little effect. And things went downhill and got out of control.
Today, those officers would likely be able to end this incident with one TASER shot. Think what that would have meant in 1991. There may not have been a Rodney King riot and all the associated death and destruction. The people of Los Angeles might not have been forced to pay a chronic substance abuser and petty criminal $3.8 million in damages. And four cops might not have been prosecuted and lost their careers.
The moral of this story is that TASERs serve a very important role in modern law enforcement: They end confrontations with subjects quickly before they can spiral out of control. And that has been a godsend for all American officers.