"Hello. My name is Rich Smith, and I'm a Taser shareholder. It's been four months since my last stock purchase."
But over the past couple of weeks, I've become decidedly more optimistic about Taser's prospects. Not because of any revival in the stock price (there hasn't been one), but because of the stories I've been reading -- and more importantly, the stories I haven't been reading.
The Taser story that wasn't
I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's latest work, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In it, the former Washington Post
Toward the end of the book, Gladwell explores the dark side of this skill. In particular, he reports on a critical, unconscious misjudgment on the part of four South Bronx police officers that ended the life of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo on the night of Feb. 4, 1999, when he was shot 41 times at the entrance to his own apartment. His crimes: being a lone, black man standing in front of a darkened apartment in the middle of the night in a bad neighborhood, failing to "halt" when four police officers told him to, and trying to pull his identification from his pocket when four firearms were pointed at his chest. It's as clear why the police officers drew the wrong conclusion from these facts and began shooting as it is tragic that they did so.
According to Gladwell, the greatest strength of the adaptive unconscious -- its ability to make snap, "instinctive" judgments -- is also its greatest weakness. Sometimes, those judgments will be wrong. Citing voluminous research in this field, Gladwell explains that in matters involving armed police officers, the most critical element in making correct decisions and avoiding incorrect, sometimes lethal, ones is time. Police officers faced with life-and-death decisions, lacking the time to think them through, are forced to rely on their instincts. And when, for whatever reason, those instincts are off, there's a risk that someone will die needlessly.
The Taser story that still isn't
Six years after Diallo's death but only a day after I finished reading about it, I then read in the Post, Gladwell's old newspaper, of a disturbingly similar incident -- one not as tragic as the killing of a man, but tragic nonetheless. Two police officers, answering a (false) burglar alarm at the home of Ms. Palmer Graham in Washington, D.C., were greeted by Graham and her Weimaraner, Peach. That much, everyone agrees on.
Where the participants' versions conflict is on what Peach did next. In Graham's account, Peach dashed from her garage and began barking at the officers from a distance of several feet. In the officers' report, Peach attacked them. All parties agree on what happened next -- one officer took aim and shot Peach in the head, mortally wounding her.
Graham's story has something else in common with that of the officers: In neither account did the officers back away, or use pepper spray or other non-lethal force on Peach. The officers did nothing to buy themselves time to think through whether they really needed to kill this dog. Just as with Diallo, the officers relied on their instincts. Just as with Diallo, they made a split-second, mistaken decision, and a life was ended.
The Taser story that must be
It seems the two incidents have one final thing in common: litigation. In the Diallo case, the city of New York faced an $81 million lawsuit, which was later settled for $3 million. Graham has also retained a lawyer, and the city of Washington, D.C., may well face its own lawsuit soon.
Now, I'm well aware of the possibility that Tasers can kill. Certainly, enough lawsuits allege it that it's more likely than not that this is true. But many supposedly "non-lethal" weapons can result in death: nightsticks, tear gas, bare hands. The point is that these items aren't intended to be lethal. Like Taser, they're non-lethal instruments that can be used to minimize the risk of death and put distance between a police officer's firearm and the need to use it.
The newspapers love to cover the lawsuits that follow incidents where a Taser weapon is used and someone gets hurt as a result. But at some point, the Taser story has to change.
Police departments must eventually realize that the risk of being sued for an accidental death involving a Taser is worth taking when weighed against the near-certainty of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit following the lethal use of a firearm. Ultimately, I expect all police departments to use Tasers -- it's an economic necessity in this age of endemic and costly litigation. Ultimately, I also expect this to result in fewer lives lost to mistakes made by well-meaning officers with too little time to think.
But as a Taser investor, I'm still waiting to read that story in the newspaper.
Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Taser but of no other company mentioned in this article. Taser is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick -- a free trial to the Rule Breakers newsletter service is yours for the asking.The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.
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