Meet the company trying to break the taser monopoly

Meet the company trying to break the taser monopoly

Last month, Digital Ally, a Kansas-based company known for its police body and dashboard cameras, announced that it had secured a patent for a new conducted electrical weapon. This marked the first time in more than a decade that a serious player in the police business showed interest in building a newer and better taser.

Ever since 2003, when one of the two companies making tasers bought out the other, there has effectively been a taser monopoly. If you’ve ever seen a police officer carrying a taser, that taser was almost certainly manufactured by the publicly traded company formerly known as Taser International, now named Axon Enterprise, Inc.

Axon’s version of the taser isn’t perfect. It uses copper wires to transmit an electrical charge, and those wires can be awkward and clumsy. And even though tasers were once marketed as “non-lethal” weapons, they’ve nonetheless played a role in more than 1,000 deaths and counting.

Axon’s market dominance is unmatched. An overwhelming majority of United States police departments carry Axon’s tasers today. And while Axon has gotten a lot of recent attention for last year’s name change and its outward focus on police body cameras, evidence management systems, and RoboCop-inspired artificial intelligence gambits, shock weapons are still where Axon’s money is made: more than 75 percent of its annual revenue in 2016 came from selling tasers.

So it makes sense that another company would try to make a better taser and challenge Axon’s monopoly. Digital Ally’s device is still in the early stages — it has the patent and is working on a prototype — but the company’s engineers saw a couple aspects of Axon’s taser that they hoped to improve. One was the wires.

When a shooter pulls the trigger of an Axon taser, compressed nitrogen shoots two-pronged darts from the weapon’s barrel, which are attached to electrically charged copper wires. Tasers generally only function properly if the shooter’s target happens to be within 15 feet or so of the shooter, and if the darts get close enough to (or impale) the target’s skin. If the distance is too great, or if the darts don’t connect with the target in just the right way, the taser is going to fail. If that sounds like a lot of variables to take into consideration when firing a weapon in a high-intensity police interaction, it is. Axon’s tasers have been criticized for being effective only a little more than half the time with some departments, and they are notorious for failing to work when someone’s wearing a coat.

Instead of using wires, Digital Ally’s director of engineering, Steve Phillips, decided that radio frequencies would work better to send electricity into a target. Instead of attaching darts to wires, Digital Ally’s taser — its patented “wirelessly conducted electronic weapon” — uses compressed gas to shoot a projectile that doesn’t necessarily emit an electrical charge, but can do so if the shooter decides it’s necessary.

This isn’t the first time a company has tried to create a wireless electrical weapon. For a few years, Axon attempted to market something called the XREP — a shotgun that fired an electrically charged projectile as far as 100 feet and then doled out a 20-second shock when it made contact with a target. One problem, Phillips said, was that the XREP was too bulky. “Who wants to carry around a shotgun wherever they go?” he said. Another was that there was no way to control the 20-second charge. So, Digital Ally made the device smaller and designed a remote control.

Another advantage with such a design, Phillips said, is that police might potentially track a suspect if the charge doesn’t work or the officer decides not to shock the target. Phillips equated the idea to “GPS cannons,” which are designed to launch location-tracking devices onto cars that speed away from officers. Cops can then track where the cars are going and send backup there, rather than participating in a dangerous high-speed pursuit. In the case of Digital Ally’s taser, the devices are shot onto humans rather than vehicles.

Digital Ally claims the ability to control the shock may result in fewer people getting electrocuted, therefore lowering the risk that someone could be killed. “We want to minimize the use of the shock,” Phillips explained.

In Phillips’ estimation, the threat of the shock is often enough to calm a suspect down. So the idea would be that, in an interaction with a suspect, an officer could shoot the projectile at the suspect and then warn them that if they don’t comply with orders, they’d be shocked with an electrical charge, which the officer could turn on and off from the taser gun itself. Having the option to not shock someone at all would reduce the risk, Phillips said. Setting a time threshold — a limit on the number of seconds that the suspect could be shocked to avoid potentially deadly cardiac capture — would reduce it further.

“There are always going to be circumstances you can’t avoid in policing,” said Stan Ross, Digital Ally’s chief executive officer, referring to unforeseen life-threatening situations, such as when a person hits their head on the ground or falls off a ledge after being shocked with a taser. “But we believe we can bring safety features that are not available at this point that could save lives.”

Digital Ally isn’t the first to attempt to launch a taser competitor since 2003. Robert Gruder, a Tampa, Florida-based businessman, tried to do it twice — once with a company called Stinger Systems, and again with a company called Karbon Arms. Axon (then Taser International) went after him both times with every legal tool it could. “Needless to say, they had a bigger bankroll than us,” Gruder told me back in 2014. “They sued us out of business.” Phazzer, another company that’s been trying to pull off a taser competitor for years, likely isn’t far from that same fate. Last year, a Florida judge ruled that its executives had “engaged in a pattern of bad faith behavior” and ordered a permanent injunction barring it from selling Phazzer tasers. Phazzer has appealed the decision.

What separates Digital Ally from these other potential taser competitors is that it’s already established in the police business. Unlike, Stinger, Karbon, and Phazzer, Digital Ally already sells dashboard and on-body cameras to more than 6,000 police departments. A taser would thus be a new product offering for Digital Ally, rather than something to build an entire company around from scratch.

Digital Ally has also already been successful fighting Axon in court. Digital Ally sued Axon in 2016 for infringement over its auto-activation body camera patent, among other things. Digital Ally has so far been successful in court regarding auto-activation and is scheduled for a pre-trial hearing with Axon in the spring.

But would police departments buy Digital Ally’s taser? Could the taser monopoly be upended? Digital Ally has certainly identified parts of Axon’s taser design that it feels can be improved. At $ 1,399.99 per unit, Axon’s tasers are expensive, and they need new cartridges every time a taser is fired. (Digital Ally is too early in the process to have identified a price point or sales structure of the weapons or cartridges.) Police departments tend to renegotiate their taser contracts either as standalone agreements, or as part of tie-in contracts for body cameras and other equipment, but Digital Ally can compete in that space as well. Teaming up with Safariland, Digital Ally was added last year as part of a major contract to provide body cameras to the New York Police Department, beating out Axon and others. Might the NYPD also purchase its tasers from Digital Ally? And if so, might other agencies as well?

It’s mostly a hypothetical question at this point. Digital Ally hasn’t gone into production on its new taser, and its executives wouldn’t tell me when they plan to. An Axon representative declined to comment. But I put the hypothetical question to Seth Stoughton, a former officer with the Tallahassee Police Department who’s now a University of South Carolina law professor studying the uses and effectiveness of police body cameras. He also knows quite a bit about Axon’s history. I asked him: does Digital Ally have any chance of challenging Axon in the taser market?

“Maybe, if they can show that having a wireless projectile is safer/better/more effective than having a wired projectile,” he wrote in an email. “One of the complaints about TASERs that I hear from officers is that they get shocked when they come into incidental or accidental contact with the wires… But Axon is pretty protective of its market share, so I expect that this will be contested in the marketplace and in the court of public (and police) opinion, if not in an actual courtroom.”

Stan Ross, Digital Ally’s CEO, said he’s in it for the long run. “We think we have a real competitor here,” he said. If he’s right, it’d be the first one in more than a decade.

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