06 May 2019

How ethical are TASERs really?

The manufacturer of TASER, a conducted energy weapon, Axon recognised a gap in law enforcement for ‘non-lethal’ weapons back in 1993. Today, 17,000 out of 18,000 U.S. police agencies procure TASER devices, and the company is quickly expanding globally, with TASERs deployed as far afield as Mexico, the UK and Australia.With unmatched market dominance, a compound annual growth rate of 16% over the last seven years and a mission statement to “obsolete the bullet”, Axon Enterprises appeared on our potential investment opportunity radar recently.

Not content with global product expansion, Axon has been developing an end to end integrated law enforcement solution. Axon already offers digital evidence management and the ability for officers to capture public safety videos through Axon’s body cameras. In the near future, Axon will be expanding its product range to include police agency records management systems and computer-aided dispatch software.

While Axon boasts impressive financial fundamentals, the ethics of investing in such a business aren’t as clear.

Axon describes TASER as "an alternative far superior to using firearms in many contexts”. According to the company, TASERs have saved nearly 200,000 lives, with over 3.7 million uses in the field worldwide.

But research to back such claims is, at best, inconclusive. Described by the United Nations Committee Against Torture as “a form of torture…that in certain cases could also cause death”, labelling TASER a 'non-lethal weapon' is a misnomer. In the US alone, reportedly over 1,000 deaths have occurred following the police use of TASERS, and there is growing evidence of the risk of cardiac failure from TASER use.

Research by the University of Chicago found that the Chicago Police Department's adoption of TASER resulted in a reduction in officer injury but no effect on firearm use by law enforcement. The study found that "police injuries fell, but neither injury rates nor the number of injuries to civilians were affected."

Further ethical and privacy issues present themselves from Axon’s shift to data capture, management and retention. Live-streaming of incidents and real time facial recognition, tracking and matching technology is less of a technology challenge than an ethical one.

Although Axon has established an Artificial Intelligence Ethics Board to help guide the development of Axon's AI-powered devices and services, its members include law enforcement representatives, the very sector that faces growing scrutiny over how it uses Axon products.

Ultimately, these unresolved ethical issues surrounding Axon led us to the decision not to add the company to the portfolio. Ethical investing is as much to do with the companies that you choose not to invest in, as well as the companies that you do. 

This story was provided by our Pengana International Fund - Ethical.

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