Killing Them Safely, Nick Berardini’s incisive documentary about the lethality of tasers in the hands of police officers, is exploring just about the most prescient subject of 2015: police brutality. But Berardini’s film doesn’t take the conventional issue-doc routes of either a specific case and examining the damage, or even just confronting the subject matter head-on. Rather, Killing Them Safely starts backward, centering the entire story around Taser International, the Arizona-based company who has made a fortune suppling police departments across the country with tasers. They’re an utterly strange company whose choices (and non-choices) illustrate lofty concepts about corporate trust, moralistic delusion, and that’s even before the film dives into the intertwined adjacent conversation about the ethical and political implications of non-lethal weapons like tasers.
These are all strong accomplishments, but Berardini’s film would be cold to the touch if it didn’t transcend these intellectual discussions to also be moving. Killing Them Safely is the rare documentary to be intentionally clinical about emotionally raw circumstances, but while there’s an analytical bent to even the most disturbing aspects, the story always circles back to the human cost of corporate decisions. I spoke to Berardini about his experience putting together the film together around one in-person interview, the difference between humanizing and sympathizing, and how he would have shifted his filmmaking approach had he started making the film in the aftermath of a year that placed police brutality under a microscope.
The Film Stage: In nearly every interview you’ve been asked about access, and how you were able to speak so intimately with Steve Tuttle, the VP of Communications from TASER International.You’ve explained that you originally just approached the company in an unassuming manner as a college student, but some of your later footage snowballs into far larger contexts like the deposition testimonials and the council meeting in Canada? As the story advanced, was it more difficult to access that footage? And did your intention evolve during the filming process?
Nick Berardini: When you think about the film, the film wasn’t even initially about Taser international. The film was about Stanley Harlan’s family, and what had happened in Moberly, MI. It was an observational film about this small town that was trying to recover, a town that was trying to heal itself after what had happened to Harlan. It only became about Taser International when I understood after spending a day there there, that the situation had become Orwellian.
It was such a surreal experience. It didn’t happen overnight, but very slowly, I started to become enamored with the question of ‘why is this company so aggressive in pitching me and telling me that they are this image that I don’t really think they are?’ They were trying to convince me that they were this idealistic “American Dream” image, and clearly that was a simplification of what was happening in the real world.
During the interview, I expected a bit more capitulation over the obvious things. I expected them to say things like ‘and it may be rare, but people can be killed with our products.’ The fact that they weren’t coming to common ground on that was crazy to me, and when I left that day, it became obvious to me that I had a competing point of view. I had something that wasn’t just a black and white ‘he said/she said’ or good or bad discussion. It was an exploration into the psychology of’ why are they like this, what’s motivating this?’
The interview was open-ended and almost soft going in. I didn’t want to confront them. That’s not what I was interested in. I wanted to genuinely understand them, and I didn’t have a ton of information that would come across as confrontational anyway.
I knew then that even though it was a light interview, I just wasn’t going to be allowed back. And what eventually became clear is I wanted to make this movie about Taser International – about these executives, and specifically the Smith brothers and Tuttle.
It was one preliminary day of shooting, so what I had to do was create a structure where the narrative of the film would be about all of the things that threaten the company’s existence. That’s why it’s so narrowly focused, and not so much on the broader issues of taser usage, but specifically Taser International. It’s a movie about a company, so these are the things that create conflict for this company, and threaten its existence.
I had to essentially create the two main characters – Rick and Tom Smith – out of archival footage. It was especially difficult in that what existed of them was all performance. It was all either shareholder presentations, presentations on a stage at a training conference, and news interviews, which are all a narrowly defined forms of performance. They’re all serving a very specific purpose.
When I later met the liability lawyers John Burton and Peter Williamson, and started establishing this relationship with them, I got access to a whole new world of stuff that was more honest. At this point, I knew what had gone on on paper. I knew these were the things that happened to make the company the way it is, but I didn’t really have any way to bring that to light visually. I started gaining access to Taser International’s internal archives, and specifically, the deposition videos because the lawyers get access to all these materials through lawsuits.
That opened up a whole new world, especially with the deposition footage, which showed them in a different context, and I think humanized them. It became about this confrontation that’s not coming directly from me, but came across in the edit through the critical plot points.
Early on, one of the lawyers says something along the lines of “The brothers are just weird, there’s something not quite right about them.” These brothers are such a strange bunch. They’re talking about Star Wars and Star Trek as influences, and then walking onstage to AC/DC and talking about protecting truth. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition of personality and message.
Right, right! As much as it’s an issue movie, it’s a movie about rhetoric and marketing. In many ways, it’s beyond about being whether tasers are good or bad. It’s a movie about the way in which we reset our own moral compass in order to justify our decisions. They said things even when they were actively lying or misleading, to the detriment of either the public or police officers, or both. They were doing it out of this place of saying that the ends justify the means, and that they had to do this.
That lack of self-awareness is what really caused the tension, and made this a really fascinating film. It’s about exploring the nature of human behavior. It’s about trying to understand the root causes of why we fall in love with technology, and think it will solve all of our problems without thinking about the potential downsides. The film is interested in painting a picture of all of these people as real human beings, and not just as evidence, or as good and bad guys.
The Smith brothers aren’t boogeymen. They come off a little bit slick every once in a while, but I did surprisingly find myself sympathizing with them quite a bit during some of the depositions. You very much understood where they were coming from a lot of the time, and I think that goes double for the affected policeman as well in terms of how much speculation factors in at both Taser International, and with the police departments that just assume that tasers have been field tested or will be safe. How did you try to find that balance of portraying these two groups, and their human and administrative mistakes?
The movie is very much trying to take everyone at face value and explore further, and that’s reflective of the experience I had in making it. I think we’re always at our best if we try to listen first before offering an opinion.
I don’t think that I sympathize as much with the company. I would put it this way instead – I don’t sympathize with them anymore. They have this blood on their hands. They very much needed this collateral damage to survive.
The weapons are already so expensive that without being able to convince officers that they’re perfectly safe, they never would have sold the amount of tasers that they did because it would be a niche weapon. Officers just don’t see enough of the situations that we would deem common sense taser usage to justify spending upwards of $1,000 on a weapon, and arming all their street officers with them.
I wanted to humanize Taser International without feeling like I needed to have a lot of sympathy with them because I present multiple opportunities for them to redeem themselves. And what we learn by going back to the beginning at the end is that they made this very clear decision early on when they were facing bankruptcy that they were going to choose themselves first. They were going to do whatever they needed to survive. And everybody else would come second.
But I can definitely sympathize with a lot of police officers. Police officers are hearing material presented by another officer, who is in fact paid by the company to be a master instructor. That conflict of interest is obvious everywhere. That officer who’s outfitted with the taser really doesn’t have the capability to do research for himself anyway, and decide that there’s a better alternative.
It speaks to how great Taser International is at marketing and rhetoric to suggest that the public doesn’t understand police officer’s jobs and that they do. They’re saying, ‘instead of putting your hands on a suspect and taking him to the ground and deal with an excessive force claim, use this taser to control the situation, and then ask questions later, and you’ll avoid yourself all of the stress of an excessive force claim. That’s kind of hilarious when you think about it. A weapons manufacturer is encouraging the customer to use the weapon more, and somehow they’re seen as objective (laughs).
It was the always the police officers holding the bag at the end of the day when something went wrong. They were dealing with the consequences. They weren’t just financial, but trying to gain trust back on the ground while the company was just washing their hands of it.
There’s that phone call in the movie where Rick Smith is on this conference call with all of these police departments at this critical time in the company’s history. The Canadian government has just concluded that tasers can kill people. They’re starting to lose lawsuits for the first time. They could have taken this moment to own up, and be honest with the police officers. They can say, ‘we were a bit overzealous initially. It’s rare, but here are the risks that actually do exist. Be judicious about how you choose to use these weapons.’
Instead, they choose to talk out of both sides of their mouth. They want to put all of these warnings in their training sessions in the fine print, and then slip out of the liability of what can go wrong. But then at the same time, they’re saying the only reason they’re doing this is to prevent greedy lawyers from suing them.
If you are familiar with liability cases, you’ll understand how difficult it is to actually lose one. If you lost, there’s probably some pretty serious evidence that you did something wrong. This isn’t like suing a neighbor over not cutting their grass enough times. This is a company – and companies are usually very insulated from product liability litigation.
They just fall deeper and deeper into their own lies. I specifically wanted to transition to the police department that you spend the most time with in Warren, Michigan. Was that after you found out about their respective incident with Robert Mitchell, or was that a situation of access and timing?
That was probably the easiest part (laughs). We knew that we wanted to hear from police officers, but we didn’t want to turn this into a “use of force” debate. Most people hear about how departments love these weapons. We were searching for a department who had come full circle – who jumped in head first and suffered the consequences, and was trying to overcome the new reality. These departments were gullible, and they jumped in, and they didn’t have good policies about how they were used because they took the company’s word for it. And eventually, people got hurt and died.
Warren was on the hook for that. And it wasn’t just the emotional devastation for everyone involved including the officer who thought he was doing the right thing and tasering this person, but the financial hook. It was demonstrating the backwards concept with this weapon that somebody has to get hurt or die before it changes the behavior. This is who or what you’re dealing with and people don’t have to get hurt or die before you use these responses.
You have some stunningly disturbing video footage – Robert Dziekanski and obviously Harlan – how did you decide on those particular incidents? Was that just another situation where things aligned that way?
Specifically with Dziekanski, it went back to the question of what are the things that threaten the company’s existence. The Dziekanski death was a very big deal in Canada. It essentially was the thing that motivated this government inquiry, which was the first government inquiry and/or government explanation that under certain circumstances, these weapons can kill people.
It’s the motivating factor, along with the lawsuits,.They are the things that made the company change its warnings and its training. The Stanley Harlan case was the first thing that got me involved with making the movie. I was a student at the University of Missouri when he died 20 miles north in Moberly, and I just happened to cover it as a student, and I wanted to make a movie about how Moberly was fractured by it.
That was my personal connection to it, but the purpose it serves in the film, it’s the emotional callback to why does this all matter. I wanted you to get sucked into the sort of pettiness that takes place when you look at these cases as numbers on a page. It’s what happens when you analyze them as lawsuits, as means for political gain, but what we’re really talking about is dead people though.
And nothing proves – and I hate to say prove because I don’t want to make it sound like we just used Stanley Harlan as evidence — but nothing really gets the point across as to what’s really at stake here like watching these officers stand around a man is dying because they’re convinced that what’s happening to him is not possible. Moberly only had one taser. It’s not like they had this rampant history of taser misuse or death. They had one taser. The guy was aggressive in using it, but none of the officers thought this kid might die. And there he is dying in front of them as his mother and stepfather are screaming to get him help. That was ultimately why his case and his story needed to be a part of the film. It’s about not just analyzing it from a cost-benefit context.
Hypothetically, if you had the chance to make a companion film that was specifically about the repercussions of this event on the town, how do you think the film would have changed? Or alternately, were there some things that you were not able to communicate by taking this broader, but more analytical perspective?
Yeah. I obviously very consciously decided to choose Taser’s point of view as the main characters rather than the Harlan family. The Harlan family was on board with that. I was in communication with them the whole time because they thought it could best represent the whole reason we started making the film in the first place. I think there’s a frustration that exists amongst families of people who died in police custody – especially in the cases where it’s very clear that it’s unjustified – that they’re not heard and there’s a level of victim blaming. People hear about the case and think, ‘well, the police wouldn’t do these things to you unless you were doing something wrong, or if you din’t provoke them.’
And had I made that observational film that was more intimate about Moberly, it may have maybe gotten that point across a little better, but that’s also a movie that would be one emotional track. As a filmmaker, I want to make films with a unique point of view that are three dimensional that can poke us in different ways, and can get us thinking about our lives in very different ways.
In a very positive way, the film feels journalistic in its approach. The agenda isn’t palpable, and rather it seems rooted in instinct and investigation. But at the same time, it’s digging deeper into the ‘whys’ more than your average news story.
Yeah again what I wanted to remind the audience of, and why I love filmmaking as opposed to TV news is that it lets us get beyond the information, and get into the psychology. That’s what this film is clawing at. It’s really trying to humanize everybody and show the viewer that given this environment, they might have made some of the same decisions.
You began shooting this film in the summer of 2009. In the last couple of years — and especially this past year — the attitude towards police brutality and accountability has drastically changed. Police Departments are being kept under a much more watchful eye, and larger discussions have emerged about the way communities and police interact with each other. If you were going to start making this film now, do you think your tone or anything about your approach would change?
I would spend a little bit more time on body cameras (Taser International is now the number one distributer of Body Cameras) at the end, I think. I would want to draw the exact same connection about how they’re using the exact same rhetoric and deepening the divide between police and the public. I want people to understand that when I talk to the press that they should understand Taser International as a weapons manufacturer. Their motto may be ‘protect truth, protect life,’ but that’s a marketing statement now. That’s not a mission statement. They’re a weapons manufacturer and they profit off of war.
It’s good for business when there is strife between the police and the community. It’s good for business when officers use tasers — even when they use them inappropriately — because Taser International is not the one that shoulders the blame. The officers do. I think in a lot of cases, Taser is as culpable or more culpable.
And then they’re turning around and selling these departments body cameras and saying, ‘well the public is just going to make all these frivolous claims against you, so why don’t you buy these body cameras to prove yourself right.’ And that doesn’t get to the root of the problem, it puts in the officer’s head that the public is the enemy. I want people to see that impracticality, the idea that the weapon is an alternative to deadly force, is just not true. That’s not how it’s used. That’s not the way it’s been implemented. It’s just an idea that helps them win the simple-minded pr battle.
Are body cameras a great idea? I absolutely think they are, but Taser International is the market leader in body cameras because of this pre-existing relationship they have with police departments.
There’s so many questions about effective storage. They are charging so much money for storage that short sellers on Wall Street see this, and are killing the company’s stock because their operating costs get really high. And then they pass those costs onto departments, so there’s a ton of questions about storage. There’s a ton of questions about who has access to this footage. Whose right is it? But that doesn’t matter because they just want to rush in againe, just like we did with tasers, and they think that will solve all of our problems. That’s not how it works, and on the flip side, departments want to buy into that stuff because it makes them look proactive to the public. If they’re buying tasers and body cameras in the wake of shootings, the public is thinking that at least their department is doing something, but that idealism is not matched in reality.
Killing Them Safely is now in limited theatrical release and available on VOD.