Why Does LAPD Keep Buying Tasers That Don't Work Like They Should?

(Illustration by Dan Carino)

By Angela Caputo, Curtis Gilbert and Geoff Hing | APM Reports

When Tasers work, they can take a suspect down in seconds with a single electrical jolt, incapacitating without killing. That’s why the Los Angeles Police Department, which tested and pioneered the weapons, has embraced the handheld devices for nearly four decades — and it’s why departments nationwide have done the same.

But three years ago, the LAPD made a disturbing discovery: The department’s Tasers were increasingly ineffective at subduing suspects in the field. And the decline correlated with a new model Taser that the department had been buying.

The new model, called the X26P, was a less powerful Taser than previous versions. The company that makes Tasers and has a monopoly on the U.S. market, Axon Enterprise, Inc., had decided to reduce the power at a time when it was facing dozens of product liability lawsuits. The X26P, released in 2013, emitted about half the electrical charge of its predecessor, which LAPD officers had carried for years.

In March 2016, the LAPD released a report showing that Tasers subdued suspects in only 53 percent of uses through 2015 — an 11-percentage-point decrease in effectiveness compared to the prior year, when officers had largely used an older model. LAPD leaders at the time said they were looking into it.

They apparently never did.

An APM Reports investigation has found that LAPD officials neglected to investigate why their new Tasers were failing to subdue people more often than their older Tasers. In fact, the department — with approximately 9,000 sworn officers — kept buying more X26Ps, eventually equipping virtually every patrol officer with a weapon that, according to the department’s own data, has been less effective.

Tasers’ performance in Los Angeles wasn’t an aberration. APM Reports also found that in a dozen police departments nationwide, officers rated Tasers as considerably less reliable than Axon had claimed. And in New York and Houston, the investigation yielded a finding similar to LA: Two of Axon’s newer models, including the X26P, had been less effective at bringing down suspects than older ones.

According to a larger sample of LAPD’s data obtained by APM Reports that focused only on the X26P, it was effective in only 54 percent of uses since the department began testing the model in 2013 through early 2018. The previous Taser model used by the department, the X26, was 61 percent effective over that same time.

When Tasers don’t stop a suspect, the consequences can be life-threatening for the officer and especially for the public. Between 2015 and 2017, LAPD officers fatally shot at least eight suspects after their X26P Tasers failed to subdue them — people who, had the Taser worked as the police had expected, might still be alive.

Nationwide APM Reports found 258 fatal police shootings in that same time period in which a Taser was ineffective. In about 100 of those cases, according to investigative files and media reports, the person became enraged or more aggressive after being shot with a Taser, suggesting that the weapon may have made a bad situation worse. (You can also listen to an audio version of the APM Reports national story on the investigative radio show and podcast, Reveal.)

There are a number of reasons why a Taser might not work. But it appears a key difference between the X26P and the model the LAPD had used previously was the power reduction.

“I think it’s a reasonable bet that as you reduce this charge, you were going to reduce the probability of making the subject fall down,” said J. Patrick Reilly, an electrical engineer who spent most of his career doing research at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and has studied Tasers.

Axon disputes that lower power translates to lower effectiveness. In a written statement to APM Reports, Axon said its laboratory testing proves the lower-powered devices work just as well.

“TASER are the most studied less-lethal tool on an officer’s belt with more than 800 reports, abstracts and studies on the safety and effectiveness of TASER weapons,” the Axon statement read. “These studies, along with nearly 4 million field deployments over 25 years, establish they are the most safe and effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement.”

Despite data on the X26P gathered internally, LAPD is not second-guessing its decision to buy thousands of the devices. “I can say I’m not concerned about it,” LAPD Assistant Chief Jon Peters told APM Reports. Department officials are happy with the Tasers, he said, adding that it’s hard to know what is pushing down effectiveness because there are so many variables that influence how well a Taser will work.

But Robert Harris, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD officers, said findings by APM Reports warrant further investigation. Responding to the analysis showing the X26Ps were effective in 54 percent of uses, he said, “Those odds might be OK for Vegas. I don’t know that I would want those odds for my officers on the street.”

CONFRONTING COPS WITH A BOX CUTTER

On the afternoon of July 13, 2015, a 41-year-old homeless man named Jason Davis was brooding at a coffee shop on Rose Avenue in Venice.

Davis had suffered from severe depression and schizophrenia for decades and had attempted suicide three times. Davis was born in the Detroit area and spent most of his teen years outside of Chicago. He joined the Army after high school and eventually landed in Los Angeles, where he attended community college. Davis, though, struggled to keep an apartment and often lived out of his car for more than a decade.

Many people didn’t notice Davis in the coffee shop that afternoon. But one man, Jake Zambas, became unsettled when he heard Davis muttering that he wanted to die.

Others noticed Davis when he vomited dark liquid — a witness had heard him call it “liquid death” — that he’d been sipping from a bottle. Davis’s mother told APM Reports that her son carried the bottle because he did not litter.”

When staff asked Davis to leave, he grew paranoid. He thought he was being followed and photographed. An employee offered to call an ambulance, but Davis refused. Instead, he pulled out a box cutter. “The employee was kind of bummed,” Zambas told APM Reports. “Like, ‘Now I have to call the cops.’”

Davis became enraged. “Yeah, call the cops so they’ll come and kill me,” he said.

He’d had a good relationship with the police officers who were regulars at the convenience store where he worked. But recently, his opinion of law enforcement had soured.

Four months earlier, LAPD shot and killed his friend, another homeless man, named Leundeu “Africa” Keunang, outside of a tent on a Skid Row sidewalk. Keunang’s death had made national news and drawn criticism that officers were too quick to use their guns during a routine disturbance call.

But another fact of the case had received far less attention: Officers had tried to restrain Keunang with a Taser — an X26P. Twice.

LAPD had just purchased the Taser used on Keunang a few months earlier. It was one of thousands of new X26Ps being deployed across the city.

As the department rolled out the new devices, officials researched 45 incidents and concluded that Tasers were effective 67 percent of the time over three months in 2015. That study, however, also included the model police used previous to the X26P.

The real test of the newer Tasers’ effectiveness was playing out on the streets. Before the end of the year, five people would be fatally shot by police after a Taser failed to subdue them. In some cases, officers seemed puzzled why their Tasers hadn’t brought suspects down, investigative reports of the shootings show. But they steadily logged data points from each incident and, in time, a pattern of ineffectiveness emerged.

In Keunang’s case, LAPD determined that the homeless man wasn’t subdued because he’d grabbed the Taser wires, breaking the electrical circuit. But records and news reports show that the investigation focused mostly on the bullets that followed.

Keunang’s death had sent Jason Davis further into depression, according to his mother. When officers arrived at the Venice coffee shop, they told him they were there to help and to drop the box cutter. But Davis held onto it and walked toward them.

“He was stomping sort of slowly and theatrically,” Zambas said. “He didn’t look threatening. He was just holding it.”

For Zambas, time slowed. He watched as Davis moved toward the officers, who initially hung back approximately 10 to 15 feet. One officer unholstered a gun. The other pulled out a new Taser X26P, aimed it at Davis, and, according to Zambas, eventually fired it.

Taser Firing Darts; Illustration by Dan Carino

EFFECTIVENESS DROPS, MORE TASERS ORDERED

LAPD liked the X26P, in part because the weapon had components that worked with equipment the department already owned. At the end of 2014, the department spent $1.68 million on 2,270 new X26Ps. And officials wanted more. Within months, LAPD would have nearly 3,200 of the new Tasers in its arsenal.

The X26P was gradually replacing the previous model on the street. By the end of 2015, they accounted for 65 percent of Taser shots, according to data reviewed by APM Reports.

But signs of trouble began to emerge: The department’s own data showed that Tasers were less effective.

That caught the attention of local media. In March, KPCC reported the story; the next month, the L.A. Times published a report that nearly a quarter of the people shot by LAPD in 2015 were wounded or killed after a Taser failed to subdue them.

“Troubling story,” retired Captain Greg Meyer wrote in an email to department leaders after reading the L.A. Times story. But emails obtained by APM Reports show that Meyer’s concern was met with a dose of skepticism by then-Assistant Chief Michel Moore, who today leads the department.

Moore pointed to a rumor around the department that “the new X26P is less effective,” but he didn’t have a definitive explanation. “Could be result of us requiring our people to carry in the field and they would like to undermine its usefulness,” he wrote. “May also be the consequence of it being relatively new. Also digging into this to dispel the rumors.”

Days later, Moore fired off another email to some staffers seeking answers. “I need your folks to do some research on the effectiveness of the X26P,” the emails show.

Publicly, however, the department went on the defensive. Charlie Beck, the chief at the time, appeared on KTLA explaining that Tasers are one of many tools available for officers. “None of them are 100 percent effective, and I think that’s important to note,” he said. “[W]e have to have realistic expectations.”

What Beck didn’t mention was that the department had just bought thousands of brand-new X26Ps.

Two days later, the L.A. Times editorial board cautioned the department not to count on Tasers as a “magic solution” to reducing police shootings. In response, emails show, Moore directed a staffer to “prepare a rebuttal to support the added devices.”

With that email, the flurry of chatter within LAPD seemed to stop. Two months later, on June 22, 2016, the city signed a contract with Axon for 4,400 more of the X26P Tasers that officers were reporting as less reliable.

When the devices arrived, LAPD had enough new Tasers to equip almost every patrol officer. Today, the department owns more than 7,500 X26P Tasers, worth nearly $7 million one of the largest police Taser arsenals in the country.

CLAIMS DON’T MATCH POLICE DATA

Axon has made varying claims over the years about how reliably its Tasers incapacitate suspects.

In earnings calls and marketing materials, company officials have asserted that Tasers are effective 86 percent, 94 percent, and 97 percent of the time in the field. The company has even claimed success rates of 99 or 100 percent in testing and demonstrations. Axon no longer makes such precise assertions of effectiveness in its marketing materials. Still, as recently as 2015, its chief executive officer said in an interview that the weapons were effective “80 to 95 percent” of the time.

But the APM Reports investigation found that police rate Tasers as less effective than the company has claimed. APM Reports sought data on Taser usage from departments in the nation’s 20 largest cities and received usable data from 12 of them.

APM Reports spent months negotiating with LAPD over the release of the data, which was acquired via an open records request and included all Taser discharges, regardless of model, between 2013 and early 2018. It showed that Tasers stopped suspects 57 percent of the time officers fired them.

The department with the highest rated effectiveness — El Paso, Texas — corresponds to the lowest end of Axon’s claims: 80 percent. Seven of the 12 departments had effectiveness rates below 70 percent. In Indianapolis, for example, using a Taser to subdue someone was only a little better than a 50-50 proposition.

The departments show a wide range of effectiveness in part due to varying definitions and measures. For instance, the LAPD counted every trigger pull as a Taser usage. Other departments, such as the New York Police Department, only track uses by each officer involved in an incident, not separate trigger pulls.

In its statement to APM Reports, Axon said that data from police departments doesn’t accurately reflect Taser effectiveness because it may not include instances when a suspect was subdued after an officer merely displayed or threatened to fire a Taser. The company argues that the sight of the weapon can be a significant deterrent to a suspect. And those incidents should count as effective use.

In most cases, the data that APM Reports obtained from the 12 major police departments reflected whether the Tasers subdued a suspect after an officer fired it.

And none of the departments — over years of engagements and more than 30,000 uses — saw effectiveness rates near 95 percent, the top of the range claimed by Axon’s Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith in 2015.

In three big cities — Los Angeles, New York and Houston — APM Reports found that two of Axon’s newer Tasers, the X2 and the X26P, were less effective at bringing down suspects than older models. The declines in effectiveness in L.A., New York and Houston were remarkably similar. In each city, effectiveness dropped between 6 and 7 percentage points when officers used the lower-powered weapons.

Given the size of the datasets, each city saw a statistically significant correlation between the lower-powered Tasers and the decline in effectiveness. Combined, the datasets for the three cities covered nearly 14,900 Taser uses.

APM Reports also analyzed the data to determine what other factors — such as incident type or the rank of the officer involved — might account for the lower effectiveness. Even controlling for those other potential factors, the analysis found that the model of Taser remained an important predictor of effectiveness.

By 2016, as the department was working to put a Taser in the hands of nearly every LAPD patrol officer, the weapons were being used more often than they had a few years earlier. And they were used prior to several high-profile shootings, LAPD records show.

For instance, in March 2017, police tried to subdue Alejandro Valencia Mendez with an X26P after he refused to drop a 5-foot metal pipe he was using to threaten bystanders. The probes didn’t penetrate Valencia’s coat. He was shot and killed.

A PRODUCT OF L.A.

Axon, the company that makes virtually every Taser in use by law enforcement, is based in Scottsdale, Ariz. But the story of the Taser begins in Los Angeles.

The weapons first came on the scene after Eula Love, a woman suffering from a mental illness, was fatally shot by police in her yard in Watts in 1979. She’d hit a utility worker with a shovel during a dispute over her unpaid bills. When two LAPD officers arrived, she brandished and threw a butcher’s knife. Police shot and killed her.

The incident shook public confidence in LAPD. Greg Meyer, a young officer at the time, was assigned to research options for non-lethal force. He told APM Reports that his mandate was clear: “We’ve got to find a better way in these types of standoff situations to end the situation without having to shoot somebody.”

Meyer and a colleague visited the lab of a Los Angeles engineer named Jack Cover, who was shopping his invention, the Taser, a loose acronym for “Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle,” a sci-fi adventure novel from the early 1900s.

Problems emerged, though. “They were not working in the field test,” Meyer said. LAPD decided to return the Tasers to Cover, who increased their power from 7 to 11 watts. “Immediately we started having complete successes,” Meyer said. The department decided to put in an order and the Tasers were given to officers.

A decade later, LAPD officers appeared to be using Tasers sparingly. In 1990, there were 3,403 use-of-force incidents, according to the department. Of those, only 134 — less than 5 percent — involved Tasers, the L.A. Times reported at the time.

Then came the beating of Rodney King in 1991.

Before he was pummeled by officers, he’d been unsuccessfully shocked with a Taser. After the incident, officers wrongly reported that drugs allowed King to resist the Taser’s shocks, allowing him to break free from the wires. King sued the LAPD, and expert witnesses testified that the Taser hadn’t worked because an air gap between King’s pants and his leg had broken the electrical circuit.

LAPD also concluded there was another factor. By examining the maintenance record of the Taser used on King, Meyer said he discovered that during a factory refurbishment, its power had been reduced from 11 watts to 7 watts.

If Rodney King had been hit with an 11-watt Taser instead of a 7-watt Taser you probably would have never heard of him,” Meyer said. “He would be in handcuffs in a police car before the videotape ever rolled.”

In 1994, Rick Smith and Cover built a new device that they called the Air Taser, and Smith’s fledgling company began selling it. To convince police departments to make the switch, Smith needed to solve a big problem: His weapons weren’t powerful enough. With the company’s last million dollars, he “dialed up” the electrical charge in every Taser pulse and crammed more muscle-contracting pulses into every second, according Axon’s literature.

He also made the weapon look more like a gun and fit neatly into a holster. The resulting models, the M26 and its smaller successor, the X26, were hot sellers with police departments.

Smith changed the name of the company to Taser International and took it public. By 2003, it was dominating Taser sales. From then on, Smith’s company had the U.S. market to itself. Last year, Axon reported $420 million in sales, up 22 percent from a year earlier. The company took in $253 million of that from Tasers, according to SEC filings.

‘IT LOOKED LIKE IT ENERGIZED HIM’

The officer’s X26P struck Jason Davis in the chest, zapping him for five seconds. But he didn’t collapse. “If anything,” said Zambas, “it looked like it energized him.”

The officer who fired the X26P, according to the investigative report, said that his suspect “tensed up momentarily before continuing to charge.”

For the weapon to work, a lot has to go right.

First, an officer must hit the target. Then, two barbed darts shot from the gun must strike within an inch or so of the skin to deliver a debilitating jolt of electricity. Where the darts hit matters, too. They must be at least a foot apart from each other when they hit someone for the electricity to flow through enough muscle to reliably incapacitate the person.

A few seconds later, the other officer fired his gun at Davis. According to police reports, Davis was shot in the shoulder and stomach, then “fell to the ground and rolled onto the sidewalk.”

Said Zambas: “I thought it was by the book. The Taser didn’t work, and they had to shoot him.”

An autopsy didn’t find any marks on his skin to indicate the Taser probes made contact. A video shows Davis wearing a loose, unzipped sweatshirt, which could have created an air gap — sometimes called a “clothing disconnect” — like the one between Rodney King’s pants and leg. As the officer’s and the witness’s statements suggest, Davis appeared to have felt some sort of shock - but not powerful enough to drop him or stop him in his tracks.

Davis died two days later.

A year after his death, LAPD said it enhanced its Tasers in an effort to improve effectiveness. It purchased new cartridges that added distance to the shot and longer darts that the company said would more easily penetrate heavier clothing.

In October 2018, as APM Reports was conducting its research for this investigation, Axon released a new model, the Taser 7, which the company is marketing as the “most effective” yet.

LAPD told APM Reports it’ll be reviewing the effectiveness of the X26Ps as some approach the end of their five-year lifespan in February.

While the department publicly stands by the popular model, Peters, the assistant chief, told APM Reports it’ll consider adopting the Taser 7. We’re in a better position from a budget standpoint and knowing that this is coming,” he added. “We’re starting to look at that replacement.”

Today Davis’s mother, Paula Laroway, said she’s still unsettled by the lack of answers about what went wrong when police shot and killed her son. She still replays the scenario in her head.

After it happened, Laroway repeatedly watched the video that a bystander posted of Davis lying on the ground, and she wished for a different ending. “It was as if I could still reach out to him or something,” she said. “It was done, and he’s dead.”

*Note to readers: APM Reports is part of American Public Media Group, the parent company of KPCC/LAist.