When Police Tasers Kill: The Tragic Death of Stanley Harlan
I am not a use of force expert. While I’ve read use of force policies, I have never written one or participated in training that would teach me how to handle a dynamic, escalating, violent situation. I’ve never actually experienced or been threatened with violence. I accept that law enforcement officers are given enormous responsibility to use force and maintain order.
I have, however, seen the impact of an in-custody death.
My film, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, started as an intimate portrait of the relationship between a small, working-class community and the police after 23-year-old Stanley Harlan was killed in custody.
On August 28, 2008, Stanley was pulled over for speeding (38 in a 35 zone) across the street from his home, where he lived with his mother and stepfather. He got out of his vehicle, and it turned out to be the only mistake he made. Without telling you everything, Stanley was tasered for 31 seconds in the chest, and died in front of his family.
Eventually, the film evolved into a broad profile of the only company that makes TASERs for law enforcement, TASER International. Through a mix of direct access and archival footage, Tom Swift’s narrative is driven by the company’s controversial corporate history, prioritizing decisions made by founding brothers Rick and Tom Smith in order to try to understand their point of view. I could write thousands and thousands of words about the ideas Tom Swift explores, and I’m sure I will get the chance. The film has important things to say about rhetoric, propaganda, naivety, and self-interest. We watch as the Smith brothers reconcile their success with the road they took to achieve it.
However, perhaps most importantly, the film examines the danger of our societal desire for panaceas. Everyone loves a simple solution, especially one that can be used in various contexts. When Rick and Tom Smith revolutionized law enforcement by perfecting TASERs, they provided a weapon that could potentially solve a very real problem: how does an officer control a violent suspect that he/she cannot shoot? Yet, TASER’s corporate motto to “Protect Truth. Protect Life.” morphed into more marketing campaign than mission statement as hundreds of thousands of police officers fell in love with the weapon’s effectiveness without understanding the potential consequences.
Ultimately, what’s at stake is the very real impact for both victims like Stanley Harlan and the police who decide to use force. I started this film with a simple question: what happened to Stanley Harlan? It was the reasons why it happened that led me down a rabbit hole, examining multiple perspectives and trying to pinpoint some root cause that could make sense of his death.
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Given the current climate of policing in the United States, I have thought a lot about my relationship with Stanley’s family. I became extremely close with his mom, stepdad, and father, and those relationships humbled me over several years making the film. I was there in the beginning, when the police wrote subjective reports trying to justify their use of the TASER and members of the community treated him as a piece of evidence, rather than a brother, son, and father taken from his family.
There’s something deeply cold and inhuman about the discussions we have about in-custody deaths. We break down an entire life into minutes—sometimes even seconds—in order to determine if the officer’s actions were justified. Some of us victim-blame, looking for details that help reinforce our sympathies with officers doing a dangerous job. Some of us use the death as another marker on the long list of bullet points that prove law enforcement officers don’t have compassion for the citizens they swear to protect. When there’s video, it gets replayed, stylized, analyzed, all in order to determine if it’s worth our collective outrage. We politicize the incidents, forcing us to use hindsight to choose sides. That schism is felt by both the police officers and citizens, viewing each other with only two potential characterizations: “good guy or bad guy?”
Perhaps what I’m most proud of about my film is the effort we made to treat all the characters as people as opposed to proof points in an argument. Human beings are three-dimensional and complex. Unfortunately, the reason why our discussions about policing in the United States are failing is because we take the humanity out of them. We take narrow points of view about individual incidents and use them to oversimplify and generalize a very complicated and systemic problem. If we value all the lives of those involved in these incidents, we can encourage police administrators and policy makers to engage in a real discussion about use of force without them feeling defensive.
We all have work to do. Citizens must accept the responsibility of holding our law enforcement officers accountable with sensitivity. At the same time, police must stop using the reflexive crutch of “it’s a dangerous job” and remember that the reason we give them the responsibility to protect us is because they are supposed to be expertly trained in doing so.
Administrators need to stop immediately turning to more weapons or new technology to solve our problems and re-engage with communities about the impact their use of force has on them. Both TASER International and the police thought using TASERs would be a new “hands-off” way of policing, avoiding unnecessary violence. Instead, the weapons desensitized officers and created a shortcut answer that introduced more force. Even body cameras, which are a theoretically great idea, won’t get to the root of the problem, because video can be interpreted subjectively (TASER International is also the market leader in law enforcement camera technology).
When officers make mistakes, we must hold them accountable while still finding ways to welcome them back into the community. When they commit despicable acts of violence like in the Walter Scott killing, we must fight the urge to feel generalized hatred and remember that humans are capable of horrendous individual behavior. I have personally witnessed how permanent the consequences of use of force can be for both families like Stanley Harlan’s and police officers unintentionally taking a life. It’s our job to talk about use of force in a way that respects the lives at stake.
Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival. You can find tickets here.