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Missouri Taser-related death was the impetus for Nick Berardini’s ‘Killing Them Safely'

St. Louis International Film Festival

Nick Berardini was just a journalism student at the University of Missouri when he was sent out on an assignment that would impact his life and his career as a filmmaker. He was sent to Moberly, Missouri to report on a man who died while in police custody after being pulled over for drunk driving.

Berardini would later find out it was because he was hit with a stun gun in the chest three times for a total of 31 seconds. He died of cardiac arrest soon thereafter.

Related: Film Festival: Movies that touch on crime and crime prevention

Following this revelation, Berardini continued on a mission to find answers about how a supposedly non-lethal weapon in the hands of police could end up killing someone. What he found, from the depths of Taser International’s corporate rigmarole to the number of people who’d been killed in Taser-related deaths, was enough to fill a documentary.

He started the documentary process through a day-long visit to Taser International, where he spoke with the company’s Vice President of Communications, Steve Tuttle. That winding discussion became one of the narratives of the documentary, which is interwoven with training videos, archived interviews, and footage from Taser-related deaths.

“It just seemed like whatever was happening beneath the surface was real and what I was seeing on the surface wasn’t real,” Berardini said on Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air.” “While I didn’t have a lot of ‘gotcha moments’ with this vice president, and that’s not the kind of filmmaker I’d like to be anyway, I had enough curiosity to pursue ‘why doesn’t this seem to fit? Why is this pitch he’s giving me not seem to match what’s going on behind-the-scenes?’”

“Killing Them Safely” will be screened at the St. Louis International Film Festival this Saturday, and was recently optioned by Sundance Selects to be released Nov. 27.

Tasers are frequently billed as the best non-lethal weapon that police departments have in their use-of-force arsenal. That’s because, when Taser International started, their claim was that the Taser was 100 percent non-lethal. That’s how police departments were trained to use the Taser, encouraging use-of-force without strings attached.

That’s just not the case, Berardini found. He estimates that since the Taser was put into use, there have been over 1000 Taser-related deaths across the country.

“They started with the claim of ‘this could never kill anybody,’ not that this is rare, but that it is impossible. I liken that to a pharmaceutical company without the requirements of the FDA about having to put the side effects of a drug in the commercial. They wouldn’t tell you the side effects if they didn’t have to. It wasn’t just that [Taser] wasn’t telling police officers, their customers, what the side effects were…it was that they were actively telling them that they didn’t exist.”

Credit By 72stormer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
RCMP Taser International X-76 Conducted Energy Weapon.

Taser was essentially, in training, telling police officers that the thing they fear most (killing somebody) doesn’t exist, Berardini said. There is no federal body regulating the Taser or a requirement that they include or publish research about the effects of the Taser on people who have been hit with one.

That made gathering hard data on Taser-related deaths incredibly hard. However, Berardini and his team of producers have found since he released the documentary that police departments across the country have paid out over $100 million in wrongful death lawsuits and the like, for officer interactions while using a Taser.

Some police departments across the country have never used the Taser, while others have ceased using Tasers in recent years. The load of wrongful death or use-of-force lawsuits is often born by the police departments themselves, not Taser International.

While the revelations of the potential lethality of the Taser are pretty damning, Berardini said he tried to approach the story of Taser International from an evolutionary standpoint—looking at how the company’s founders, Rick and Tom Smith, evolved from doing something from an almost altruistic place, to reduce officer-involved gun shootings, to one that was motivated by the bottom line.

"Sometimes when we make documentaries, we get caught in the trap of, especially when they're 'issue films,' present a thesis and prove a thesis. ... This film is beyond good guys and bad guys."

“Sometimes when we make documentaries, we get caught in the trap of, especially when they’re ‘issue films,’ present a thesis and prove a thesis,” Berardini said. “That’s not really the best way to approach a film. You have to be three-dimensional…what makes this a film is that the Smith brothers are complicated characters. The film is beyond good guys and bad guys.”

Related Event

What: St. Louis International Film Festival Presents "Killing Them Safely"
When: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Webster University's Moore Auditorium, 470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO 63119
More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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