Tasers were marketed as "non-lethal," but a Reuters investigative team spent 18 months learning how and why there should be concern about them. Now, the resulting five-part series has won a significant journalism award.
When Jason Szep and his team began looking into the widespread use of Tasers by United States law enforcement agencies, they didn’t know they’d be getting into an 18-month project that would involve dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of legal research – and win them one of the nation’s premier journalism awards.
“Shock Tactics,” the five-part series that arose from the work of Szep and a team of core reporters, including Peter Eisler, Tim Reid, Lisa Girion, Grant Smith and Linda So, will receive the Edgar A. Poe Memorial Award at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner April 28.
Szep, a 28-year veteran of Reuters, and his team first looked into Taser use in the wake of the civil unrest that followed the August 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“At that time, there was a lot of focus on officer-involved shootings and the victims of police shootings,” Szep said. “We started to look at the weapons the police were using, and because of all the attention on shootings, we started to take a look at what other weapons police were using. That’s how we came to focus on Tasers.”
Tasers are a type of stun gun that deliver an electric current to render their targets immobile. They have been marketed to law enforcement agencies as an alternative to firearms.
“The question was, ‘They’re cast as a non-lethal weapon, but are they?” Szep said. “As we started to look at this question, we realized this weapon was more dangerous than readily understood, and that presented a real journalistic opportunity.”
As Szep and his team looked further into Taser use, more facets came to light. For example, after interviewing an attorney, the team learned the company that makes Tasers has protected itself through “elaborate and increasingly restrictive warnings,” Szep said. In the eyes of some, that makes Tasers a “liability trap” for municipalities that use them. The team also learned of over 1,000 incidents in which a person died after being Tasered by police. That’s 40 percent higher than what the company that makes Tasers claims.
Looking into the litigation that has resulted from Taser incidents was a time-consuming – and eye-opening – phase of the project.
“Westlaw was a very important tool for us as we began this project,” Szep said. “It gave us an advantage other newsgathering organizations didn’t have.”
In announcing “Shock Tactics” as the recipient of the Edgar A. Poe Memorial Award, the judges called the series “stunning, new and disturbing.”
“The project, relevant to every community, stood out in a sea of powerful contenders,” they wrote.
For Szep and his team, the award is confirmation of the value of diligent reporting and unbiased storytelling.
“It’s fantastic recognition for all the work that went into this project,” he said. “There was a lot of sweat and a lot of time that was invested into this database and reporting these stories.”