SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - Public outrage was immediate after police in Miami used a Taser stun gun to shock a 6-year-old last year in an elementary school office.
Police said the Taser was used because the boy, a special needs student, had cut himself twice with a shard of glass and threatened to slash himself again or any approaching officer.
"When you first hear the story, you think, `Oh my gosh, cops Tased a 6-year-old,'" said Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Nelda Fonticella. "But you've got to take a look at the entire situation to realize why it was done."
Now, to help better examine how Tasers are used, manufacturer Taser International Inc. has developed a Taser Cam, which company executives hope will illuminate why Tasers are needed - and add another layer of accountability for any officer who would abuse the weapon.
The Taser Cam is an audio and video recorder that attaches to the butt of the gun and starts taping when the weapon is turned on. It continues recording until the weapon is turned off. The Taser doesn't have to be fired to use the camera.
Taser Chief Executive Tom Smith said that if a Taser Cam had been used in the case of the 6-year-old, it could answer at least one important question with certainty: "If not the Taser, then what?"
"The Taser Cam could have shown why police didn't have any other option," he added. "This wasn't just Tasing someone because he was being naughty."
Unlike dashboard-mounted cameras in patrol cars, which capture the action only if it transpires where the lens happens to have been directed, the Taser cameras always face where the gun is pointed, to capture what is said and done in the moments leading up to a suspect being jolted by the device's 50,000 volts.
"It's going to give real accountability," Smith said as he demonstrated the device recently at the company's headquarters in this Phoenix suburb. "Now you'll have absolute proof."
The company plans to start selling Taser Cams as early as March. The cameras won't come standard - they'll cost around $400 (?335). Tasers generally run $800 to $1,000 (?670 to ?840), depending on the model and order size.
Analysts see the cameras as a potential boost for the company's sluggish sales, which have come amid a growing controversy over the weapon's safety. Taser's profits in the first nine months of 2005 sagged 93 percent from last year, pressing the company's stock price into the $7 (?6) range, well below the 52-week high of $33.45 (?28).
Joe Blankenship, an analyst with Source Capital Group, said most of Taser's sales come from selling dart cartridges that reload the device. Now, he said, the Taser Cam "could also be considered a very necessary accessory."
Even people critical of Tasers say the cameras are a good idea. But the critics also are skeptical that this latest technology won't be plagued by the same record-keeping problems as other accountability features already on the stun gun.
Tasers record the time and date of use, the number of times the trigger was pulled and how long it was held down each time - essentially how long a person was shocked.
But no single agency keeps track of all Taser use. The manufacturer can only ask police departments to submit their use records voluntarily, so they're incomplete.
"There's a capacity to download data now and it's not being fully used," said Edward Jackson, a spokesman for Amnesty International. "What guarantees are there that this new technology will be used to prevent the abuse of Tasers?"
Amnesty International has compiled a list of more than 100 people the group says have died after being shocked by Tasers in encounters with law enforcement since June 2001.
The deaths have prompted some police departments to reconsider the necessity of the devices. Lawmakers have introduced bills restricting their use.
Taser denies that its products are to blame in the deaths, arguing that drugs, health conditions or other factors, not the electrical shock, have been the cause. The company also contends Tasers have saved the lives of thousands of suspects who might otherwise have been shot by police.
Taser has been selling its weapons to law enforcement since 1998. Today, about 171,000 Tasers are being used by more than 8,000 agencies in the United States, according to the company.
The weapon uses compressed nitrogen to fire two barbed darts that can penetrate clothing. The darts are attached to the stun gun by wires that deliver the 50,000-volt shock, overwhelming the nervous system and temporarily paralyzing people.
Taser executives hope the new cameras show suspects complying with officers' orders at the mere threat of a Taser being used, what they consider a best-case scenario.
The Taser Cam records in black and white but is equipped with infrared technology to record images in very low light. The camera will have at least one hour of recording time, the company said, and the video can be downloaded to a computer over a USB cable.
Al Arena, a project manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police research center in Virginia, said the Taser Cam could "only be a good thing." But he cautioned that police departments should create policies on downloading the material to ensure no video footage is deleted.
"That transfer really needs to have some standards and requirements, otherwise there's no security there," he said.
A Taser rival, Tampa, Florida-based Stinger Systems Inc., announced Oct. 10 that it had begun selling stun guns that can also be equipped with an audio-video recorder. The guns sell for about $600 (?500) and the recorders for about $200 (?170). The company won't say who has bought the weapons.
Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonprofit research group, said police agencies "that don't invest in Taser Cam technology are playing with PR fire."
"The first local police force that gets accused of excessive force without video to refute the claim will be the last one," he said. "This technology pays for itself in the court of public opinion. What you lose in revenue, you gain in public trust."