Houston suit asks: Is new Taser dangerously weak? Taser says no

(Reuters) - When Karen Taylor graduated from the Houston police academy, she got a badge, a gun and a Taser. A few years later, she got a new Taser, one the manufacturer marketed as “cost effective, simple to use, and similar in size” to the stun gun she got as a rookie.

Taser’s announcement for the new X2 in 2011 said it “features a second shot for instant miss recovery, dual LASERs for improved accuracy, enhanced power magazine with more than 500 firings, and a warning arc that helps prevent conflict from escalating.”

The X2 also delivers about half the maximum electrical jolt put out by Taylor’s first Taser – the X26, the company’s most popular weapon for a decade.

Taser told Reuters its tests showed there were “no discernible differences” in the takedown abilities of the X2 and the X26. Those results have not been published.

But, in a lawsuit filed earlier this year, Taylor alleges the X2 is underpowered, so much so that it failed to stop a mentally ill woman from attacking her. The incident left Taylor with injuries that forced her to end her 8-year police career, she says.

Taylor contends Taser hid the power reduction in order to persuade police to swap their old X26 models for the new X2. The reduction in power exposes officers to violence and raises the odds they will draw a service pistol as backup, her suit alleges.

“A police officer has to have a reliable piece of weaponry to feel safe,” Taylor said in an interview. Otherwise, “it’d be like sending an officer into a gunfight with a water gun.”

Until now, safety concerns about Tasers have focused primarily on their targets. Taylor’s lawsuit focuses on the safety of police officers.

Taser cornered the market on police stun guns by supercharging its weapons so that they didn’t just cause pain; they induced incapacitating muscle contractions. Taser chief executive Rick Smith called the innovation “lock up” – and promoted it as the key to ensuring officer safety.

Taser, which now does business as Axon Enterprise Inc, no longer sells the X26 in the United States and Canada. In its place are two new generation Tasers, the two-shot X2 and the single-shot X26P. The maximum output of both is 72 microcoulombs, about half that of the original X26. The reduction lowered their cardiac hazard.

In an email to Reuters, Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said the new weapons are not underpowered. He said technological improvements allow the new Tasers to achieve “more muscle lockup at lower charge.”

Houston was an early adopter of the X26 and one of Taser’s biggest accounts. In 2014, Houston’s X2 upgrade order was for a record 5,400 stun guns.

Then-Mayor Annise Parker said police officials told her the city’s X26 arsenal was approaching obsolescence. Taser was no longer making or supporting the X26. And there were no competitors.

“They had us over a barrel,” she said in an interview. “We can’t get more of what we had. We have to go to the new model.”

Parker said she was told there were some improvements, “things like it has better battery life.” But, she said, “I have absolutely no memory of anybody saying anything about a difference in power. The immediate question would have been, ‘What does that mean?’”

When the UK government was considering replacements for aging police X26 stun guns, Britain’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons noted that the Taser X2 was rated to deliver about half the charge of the X26.

With less charge, the new Taser may have less effect on targets than the old Taser, the committee said in an evaluation issued last October.

“This may lead officers to use alternative, potentially more injurious, forms of force,” the committee said.

The United States has no such government advisory body.

Other than the additional backup shot, officer Taylor said she had no idea there was anything different about the X2.

That changed, she said, one day in October 2015 when she responded to a call for help from a convenience store in North Houston: A vagrant was drinking beverages without paying for them and refusing to leave.

The woman suddenly flew into a rage and attacked her, according to her lawsuit. Taylor fired a pair of darts from her X2 Taser. The woman fell but got right up. Taylor fired the weapon’s second set of darts, “but the backup shot did not work,” the ongoing suit says.

Taylor hit her officer-in-trouble alert button on her radio, drawing a swarm of colleagues. She said she was left with back injuries that forced her to go on office duty and eventually leave the force.

Andy Vickery, the Houston lawyer representing Taylor, said that if the case demonstrates the X2 is too weak to protect police, Taser may have a duty to fix or replace the weapons.

Company spokesman Tuttle said the problem was operator error.

The first shot caused the suspect to fall over, “as it was designed to,” he said, and Taylor’s contention that the backup darts failed was actually the result of a bad shot.

Her Taser, Tuttle said, “did not ‘fail’ at all.”

Reporting by Lisa Girion. Editing by Ronnie Greene and Michael Williams