I Stun the Body Electric

Dennis Kaufman used to jack up bad guys the hard way. Then one day, he picked up a stun gun.

The Matrix
The small Bedford Heights industrial park looks as bland as any other. A dozen or so companies operate behind identical doorways in three nondescript brick buildings, and the empty parking spaces evoke the feel of a vacant strip mall.

The offices of one company, a small manufacturer that recently made national headlines, are equally unassuming: modest furniture, few employees, and quiet — very quiet. The only hint of personality hangs on the wall in a series of nicely matted and framed photographs.

Wyatt Earp. Clint Eastwood. John Wayne. Dennis Kaufman.

Dennis Kaufman?

Few people would recognize his name or dour face, which is punctuated by a bushy mustache and topped with receding, graying hair. But this 53-year-old Cleveland-area policeman has also achieved notoriety as a badge-wearing lawman — not as widely as the men with whom he shares a wall, but equally dubious.

In a report released worldwide last month by the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International, Kaufman and his Bedford Heights business were identified as Public Enemy Number One. Kaufman owns Stun Tech Inc., one of the U.S.A.'s largest manufacturers of stun guns and other products designed to temporarily disable people with an electric charge transmitted through tiny metal prongs. A brief encounter with Kaufman's 50,000-volt, battery-powered products can produce the numbing feeling of a charley horse or the tingling of knocking your elbow against a table's edge. Or worse.

Stun Tech is also the largest domestic manufacturer of stun belts, a plain nylon wraparound that holds a paperback-sized powerpack against the wearer's back. Usually strapped on prisoners being transported outside the confines of jail, the belt is activated via remote control. Doing so delivers a 50,000-volt shock lasting eight seconds, which typically knocks a person to the ground, where he rolls in an epileptic fit.

On a recent afternoon, the bespectacled Kaufman, wearing a pressed blue T-shirt and his department-issue pants and polished shoes, gladly shows off his products and talks up his business in his offices. "You came here for a story," says the 210-pound officer with a barrel-sized chest and waist. "I'll give you a story."

Standing up from the conference table, Kaufman shifts his six-foot-one-inch frame into clear view and reaches for his company's most popular product — the Ultron, a hand-held stun gun that resembles a clear plastic walkie-talkie. Pressing the small metal prongs against the meat of his thigh, he activates the gun's 50,000-volt charge.

Zzzap. Zzzap.

As quick and sharp as a backyard bug killer, the Ultron collapses Kaufman's leg at the knee, causing his body to jerk to the side.

"You try it on your leg," he challenges his visitor, holding out the device.

Zzzap. Zzzap.

"Was it painful? No," he announces, without waiting for a response. "Do you feel it on your whole body? No. It works the muscle, that's all it does to the body. It doesn't get down to heart tissue or breathing."

Kaufman takes the gun back and notes matter-of-factly, "If I held it to you, it would immobilize you."

Though debilitating, Kaufman says the shock produced by the gun is less than that of an electric cattle fence, which is not harmful to humans. But Amnesty International contends that, in the hands of an abusive cop, stun technology is a form of electric torture, no less crude or intimidating than wires hooked to a car battery. And even Kaufman acknowledges that stun technology is potentially deadly when used on people with heart or other medical conditions.

More than any other device, the stun belt, known officially as REACT (Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology) has become a lightning rod for human rights advocates. Amnesty International's sixty-page report, "Cruelty in Control? The Stun Belt and Other Electro-Shock Equipment in Law Enforcement," details proven and alleged anecdotal evidence of the stun belt being used on prisoners at the whims of prison guards, among others. "Uniquely amongst stun equipment," the report concludes, "the use of the stun belt, even when not activated, constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment as outlawed under international law."

Asked about the report, Kaufman, sitting next to a stuffed toy bear dressed in a police uniform, snaps off a response that would make Dirty Harry proud:

"Amnesty is full of shit," he declares. "Let them come to the plate and say how many people have been abused with this. Give me names, dates, and times. I'll publicly back down and apologize."

Selling the Sizzle

Critics hoping to shut down a massive assembly line of workers toiling away on weapons of torture would be disappointed by a visit to Stun Tech. The assembly line of the most notorious manufacturer of stun belts in the United States is no more than twice the size of your grandfather's workshop. And there's nothing lethal about the decor — plenty of peg board, needle-nosed pliers, and bins of pre-manufactured plastic parts. Here, stun guns, stun shields, and stun belts are snapped together by a handful of workers, boxed, and stored in the adjoining warehouse.

Kaufman's entire operation — offices, conference room, training room, assembly area, and warehouse — covers 47,000 square feet. That is up significantly from the tiny office he used when he started a decade ago. But it hardly lives up to its billing as the headquarters of Public Enemy Number One.

Kaufman became interested in stun technology in 1983, after sampling a stun gun made by Nova Products Inc. of Tennessee. "I looked at it and thought, If this does what the manufacturer says, then it can be a real asset," he says. In an appearance on Dateline, Kaufman said the device also appealed to him because of his childhood fascination with Star Trek, in which the show's characters often set their phaser guns to "stun."

Shortly after seeing a demonstration of Nova's product, Kaufman became a sales rep for the company. At the time, Nova's target audience was civilians seeking personal protection. Sensing a better market, Kaufman eventually struck out on his own to focus exclusively on law enforcement agencies. He shipped his first stun gun in May of 1989.

Today, Kaufman claims his private, eight-employee operation grosses annual sales of $800,000 to $1 million. In terms of volume, the Ultron, not the stun belt, is the centerpiece of his business. Over the past ten years, he has sold roughly 20,000 stun guns — significantly more than stun belts, shields, and other devices. Stun belts move at the rate of about 250 annually and retail for $750. Since he started in business, Kaufman has sold a total of 1,800 stun belts to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshals Service, state departments of corrections, and local sheriffs' offices. (The Ohio Department of Corrections does not use stun technology, but about twenty counties in Ohio do, more than in any other state.)

A thirty-year police veteran, Kaufman is the ultimate nonsalesman salesman. His approach is simple and direct: I'm just a cop who understands what it's like on the street and makes a product that every officer needs. Like a good salesman, Kaufman — who has used stun guns on the job — often answers his own questions, does not come across as a zealot, listens well, and never overreacts.

"If you are going to be a good salesperson, you have to understand the business, and you have to understand the need for the product. That's where I fit in," he says. "I'm not a salesman. I'm here to explain the technology. I can put you down with this, and five minutes later you will get up without injury."

Still, stun guns and belts are not an easy sell. For every law enforcement agency that buys them, there are dozens that do not. Kaufman pitched the Cleveland Police Department two years ago, which decided the technology was too controversial. Joe Andrews, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, says the state recently reviewed its policy and found no need to add the stun belt to the restraints already in use. "We have a definite policy that works, and we haven't felt a need to look at the stun belt," he says. "Our prisoners are shackled and transported in jumpsuits."

Exactly the point, says Kaufman, who has a salesman's knack for turning objections to his advantage. Law enforcement agencies are unnecessarily slow to embrace new technologies, he contends, illustrating his argument with a historic reference to one of his heroes, Wyatt Earp.

"He used verbalization, he used his fists, he used a gun as an impact weapon to beat people and used his firearm to shoot," Kaufman says. "One hundred and twenty years later, we are still using the same shit. We can put a man on the moon, we can do all this stuff — but we are still dealing with the same weapon."

Is newer better? Bill Patsche, the former police chief of Martins Ferry, Ohio, which had twenty full-time cops during his tenure, authorized the use of stun guns for his department. But he found the guns (made by Nova) were not the effective "panacea everybody thought."

"Stun guns are falling into more disuse, not because of lawsuits or Amnesty International, but because you can't always keep [the stun gun] in contact with the offender," he says.

Patsche now works for the Office of Law Enforcement Technology and Commercialization, a Department of Justice program housed on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University that helps inventors get police technology products to the market. He says the stun belt is more effective as an aid for police and corrections officers who prefer keeping prisoners under tight control, from a distance.

For all that, Kaufman appears to be a success story among cops, who typically retire or go into side businesses as bar owners or "security consultants," not multimillion-dollar manufacturers. With a real company comes real problems, though. Kaufman's firm is facing a patent-infringement lawsuit from RACC International of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a small maker of stun belts. Through an earlier licensing agreement, Stun Tech had exclusive rights to sell stun belts in return for royalty payments to RACC. But when Stun Tech redesigned the belt, it stopped paying royalties to the company. A Maryland court ruled that Stun Tech still owes RACC royalty fees, though that decision is on appeal. And on the victims' end, convicted murderer James Filiaggi of Elyria sued Stun Tech after he was accidentally shocked during a court hearing. The case was settled out of court.

How good is Kaufman's bottom line? Hard to tell. He's continued to work as an officer throughout his business career, which some might take as a sign that business isn't good enough to allow him to quit his day job. Still, Kaufman insists he's finally ready for retirement from police work. "My papers are in," he says. By the end of this year, he plans to be running his business full-time. And when asked about the company's business prospects, Kaufman draws a line in the air, tracing a strong sales curve up.

Electric Overkill

The world was formally introduced to stun technology in 1991 via Rodney King. As the Los Angeles police beat King on videotape, careful viewers also noticed two wires stuck to him. The wires had been fired by police from the relatively unknown TASER gun, a flashlight-shaped device that shoots two barbs attached to fifteen-foot wires that deliver a 50,000-volt charge.

Although the TASER had been on the market since 1974 and was the subject of investigation in several deaths of individuals involved in altercations with police, the gun had not yet become a household name. But soon after the King incident, the story of its inventor became widely known. A California man named Jack Cover invented the TASER, named as an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, a reference to a book Cover loved as a child, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

While critics argue the TASER can too easily be abused by police, Kaufman believes Cover should be honored for his invention. "I think the guy that invented this technology should get the Nobel Peace Prize," he asserts, "because you can completely incapacitate someone without hurting them."

The patent protection on TASER technology ran out about a year and a half ago. Kaufman, thinking like both a businessman and a cop, has since come out with his own version of the product he admires so much. Rather than reinventing the wheel, he's created an adapter that fits over his popular Ultron, which fires the barbs 21 feet instead of fifteen.

The TASER adapter looks like a pair of salad tongs and snaps over the Ultron's prongs. According to Kaufman, it improves the effectiveness of the stun gun. "It increases the distance between the two contact points, giving the user more control over the body muscle it touches," he explains, triggering the product.

Zzzap. Zzzap.

Loading a TASER cartridge into the adapter and prompting his visitor to fire it at a mannequin dressed in an orange prison suit, Kaufman continues his pitch. "If someone is coming at you with a knife, what are your options? You have to shoot them, or you can use this."

In characteristic monotone, he anticipates objections. "Can people abuse it? Yes," he admits. "And those are the ones that have to be dealt with. But if this device is abused, compared to anything else like a baton or gun, the results will be far less harmful."

The pride that Kaufman has in his product line is unmistakable. On the walls of his small conference room he displays Ultron technical drawings, also matted and framed, next to an inspirational poster featuring America's national bird and the slogan "Leaders are like eagles." It's good old American know-how, updated and electrified.

"I took a mousetrap and made it better," Kaufman says proudly.

Ultron, for example, has important safety features — one for the officer and one for the offender who may be at the mercy of an overzealous cop. If the gun is yanked from the officer's hand by an assailant, the wrist strap will pull out the power source, rendering it inoperable. If an officer tries to hold the device against an offender for more than fifteen seconds, a timing mechanism cuts its power source (though only for five seconds). Kaufman holds patents on these two features, which he added to an earlier version of the Nova stun gun.

Stripped to their bare essentials, stun guns are not terribly sophisticated devices. Inside is a nine-volt lithium battery, some circuitry, and a coil that generates the charge. Wired together, these parts produce a high-voltage, low-amperage charge. It is the flow of electricity (current), not voltage, that is dangerous. The current is measured in amperes.

The quality of a stun gun depends on its casing and transformer. Cheaper consumer models found at flea markets and advertised on the Internet sell for between $10 and $50. They consist of generic, shoddily assembled circuitry, and their plastic shells can easily be crushed. Kaufman's $200 version uses a more durable rubber-and-plastic casing. Its transformers and circuitry are made by hand specifically for his product.

The stun belt isn't much more complicated. In essence, it's a stun gun wrapped inside a belt, activated by a remote-control switch. The belt keeps the wearer's body in contact with the charge points — and under constant threat of shock.

Stun belts gained notoriety through a highly publicized incident that took place during the trial of Ronnie Hawkins, a 48-year-old Los Angeles man convicted in April 1998 of second-degree burglary and petty theft. Hawkins had stolen $200 worth of aspirin he said he needed to ease the pain caused by the ravages of AIDS. Because he had prior felony convictions, he faced a stiff sentence under the "three strikes" law guidelines.

During his sentencing hearing last June, Hawkins — chained, shackled, and fitted with a stun belt — continuously interrupted the judge. After twice tossing him from the courtroom for refusing to obey orders, Municipal Judge Joan Camparet-Cassani ordered a bailiff to activate the remote-controlled stun belt.

Zzzap. Zzzap. Zzzap.

Should Hawkins, the first defendant in L.A. County to have his stun belt activated since the county permitted their use, have been shocked simply because he wouldn't pipe down? It's a controversial question that will likely be decided in court, as Hawkins is now suing the judge for $50 million.

The Hawkins case has also served as a touchstone for Amnesty International, which believes that the use of stun belts is becoming too arbitrary, well beyond the stated purpose of preventing escape or injury to a guard. Citing other abuses of stun devices by law enforcement officers, Amnesty is calling for the federal government to suspend their use and impose a ban on their manufacture, especially on the stun belt made by Kaufman.

Even if the device is not activated, human rights advocates say, wearing it amounts to mental cruelty, simply because of people's visceral reaction to electricity and the anxiety of anticipating a shock.

"If this device were not worn, it wouldn't be the same to us," says Curt Goering, Amnesty International U.S.A.'s deputy executive director, who has spearheaded the anti-stun-belt campaign. "You make a move that is misinterpreted, and you don't know whether you will get it."

As for stun devices in general, Goering argues that their portability, easy use, and potential to inflict severe pain without leaving visible marks on the human body make them particularly open to abuse by unscrupulous law enforcement officials.

Among the abuses cited by Amnesty are allegations made by prisoners of Virginia's maximum security Red Onion State Prison, which opened in July of 1998. Prisoners there claim that guards used electroshock weapons to intimidate new arrivals and as punishment for minor infractions of prison rules and insolence. (Amnesty requested that prison officials investigate the allegations, but does not note any official findings in its report.)

Nor are such allegations confined to large prisons. Critics of stun devices also point to a 1996 Department of Justice report on Arizona's Maricopa County Jails, which found guards using stun guns just to see their effect on prisoners. The DOJ report, disputed by Maricopa County officials, also cited the use of a stun device on a prisoner's testicles.

Goering disputes Kaufman's contention that law enforcement agencies are slow to adapt to new technology. Quite the contrary, he says. Because the prison industry is growing so fast, corrections officials are eager for new methods of managing more prisoners with fewer staff. "Where there is pressure to reduce costs, to reduce staffs, they turn to technology," argues Goering.

The combined prison and jail population in the U.S. has more than tripled since 1980 and is now approaching two million inmates. Even though huge sums have been spent on building new detention facilities, expansion still lags behind prison population growth. With overcrowding contributing to dangerous conditions in many institutions and the constant pressure of tight budgets, the burgeoning corrections market is ripe for an entrepreneur like Kaufman.

Unlike pornographers or gun manufacturers or other purveyors of controversial products, Kaufman has never ducked attention. He seems to enjoy it, making himself available to any media that call. After the release of the Amnesty report, Kaufman became the de facto spokesman for the entire stun device industry. He spoke to media outlets across the country, from The Los Angeles Times to Florida's Stuart News, from cable programs to NBC's Dateline.

Typically, Kaufman defends his products as weapons of last resort, for extremely dangerous situations in which, say, a prisoner is trying to escape or attack a prison guard. "If Amnesty International would rather have officers beat someone over the head or shoot them when they try to escape, that's the alternative," he told The L.A. Times.

In arguing his case, Kaufman relied on a few familar themes. According to figures compiled by Kaufman, the stun belt has been worn more than 50,000 times, but activated about thirty times since it went into use in 1993, and less than ten times accidentally. Kaufman himself trains law enforcement officers to whom he sells the belt, and he always reminds reporters that each of those people must be strapped to the belt and undergo the full eight-second shock. "I've got 5,000 people on tape who have used the belt, and they are fine," he says.

He also staunchly touts his product as a safe, nonlethal response to police brutality. While Kaufman admits that the devices should not be used on people who may have a heart condition, he insists that the majority of the people subjected to stun devices are fine within a few minutes. He challenges Amnesty to conduct its own medical studies with his products and prove otherwise. (Goering says Amnesty has not conducted any medical tests, though the group has discussed funding such a project.)

All of which, in Amnesty's view, is no protection against abuse. "What [Kaufman] doesn't take into account is situations like Red Onion, and how easy it is to use and abuse," Goering says. "Do you wait until 1,000 people are tortured?"

Cool as ever, Kaufman says the answer to that objection is simple: Get rid of the bad cop that abuses the technology. "There was that terrible situation with that plunger incident in New York," he reminds. "Did we take plungers off the market? No. You deal with the source; you get rid of the cancer."

Kaufman has been debating Amnesty for years, and he dismisses its ongoing campaign against him as a fund-raising ploy. To prove his point, he opens a thick folder marked "Amnesty Int." and pulls out a flier distributed by the group in 1997, which asks supporters for their "anti-torture" contributions and signature on a petition addressed to Kaufman.

He is particularly skeptical of Amnesty's current use of Muhammad Ali in its nationwide advertising campaign against stun belts. (Ali's daughter, Laila, attended the press conference in Washington the day Amnesty released the latest report.) "What did Ali do for years for money?" he asks indignantly. "He scrambled people's brains. How many brains did he scramble for pure sport? What did he do to save lives?

"I'm not doing this for sport. I'm doing this to save someone's ass."

Take It Like a Cop

Earlier this month, Amnesty wrote Kaufman a letter requesting information on a new product to which he alluded during a debate with an Amnesty official on MSNBC. During the program, Kaufman announced he was taking the stun belt off the market. But before critics could celebrate, he explained he was replacing it with a new device.

Sitting at his conference table, Kaufman opens a black plastic box and extracts the new product — the Band-It.

"Give me your arm," he says, slipping it onto the forearm of his visitor in a couple seconds.

The Band-It resembles an oversized stretch bandage with a Jell-O-sized box inside that fits snugly on any arm. Like the belt, it is activated by remote control.

Kaufman is clearly proud of his new invention. He says it fits better than the belt, is easier to place on prisoners — and is more powerful. (Though he doesn't mention it, the new device will also eliminate any more patent infringement battles over the belt.) "We won't accomplish anything with Amnesty by putting it on your arm," he says. "But we will be getting more contact with the muscle, so we can get a 50 percent more powerful takedown."

To prove his point, he shows a recent video of Hamilton County sheriff's deputies wearing the Band -It. The first tester, a short and slightly out of shape man, stands before the camera taking a few deep breaths as the countdown begins. A buzzer sounds and boom, he collapses, his feet pounding on the ground like a child throwing a tantrum.

Another clip shows a large, football-player-sized man inserting a mouthpiece before the Band-It is activated. When he is hit by the blast of electricity, he falls to the ground and rides out the pain in silence. He's then helped to his feet and smiles as his colleagues pat him on the back.

If the cops can take it, so can the bad guys.

Zzzap. Zzzap.

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