“The End of Killing”: A Conversation with Axon CEO and Author, Rick Smith

By Burke Brownfeld
Criminal Justice Writer 

Rick Smith wants to put an end to sanctioned killing. This sounds like an ambitious goal, but the CEO of Axon (previously Taser) and author of the book, “The End of Killing,” has both a vision and a strategy to make this goal a reality. Ultimately, Rick wants police officers and soldiers to have more effective weapons so that they don’t have to kill others in the course of their duties.

Why is this topic so important? For starters, as Rick points out in his book, 40,000 people per year are killed with guns in the United States, and 250,000 are killed with guns worldwide. So the stakes in this subject are quite literally life and death, and it is Rick’s life passion to tackle the challenge.

“The End of Killing” is not an Axon sales pitch aimed at promoting Tasers among police departments. The book is also not a gun control book or a partisan political book. Instead, this book takes the reader down a path of intellectual exploration into the topic of killing and challenges the reader’s preconceived notions on these issues. Rick helps the reader to understand the origin story of the Taser, and explains why humans tend to resist change, even when the change is quite clearly better than the status quo.

Rick’s book presents the topic of sanctioned killing as a technology problem. The police rely on the gun because it happens to be the most effective tool available as of today. However, what if a non-lethal tool could be developed that could out-perform the gun? He explains in his book, “When non-lethal force performs better than lethal force, killing becomes unjustifiable.” To that end, Rick sets out four very specific goals in his book:

1) Policing without killing—by 2030

2) Military operations without bloodshed

3) Big tech companies helping reduce violence

4) Activists who advance progress in police and military institutions

To further explore Rick’s vision, I contacted him for an interview. Below are the details of the interview (portions of the interview were edited for length):

Burke Brownfeld (BB): In your book, you present four (4) specific goals that are ambitious. One of these goals is, “Policing without killing—by 2030.” As part of this goal, do you envision police departments will no longer need to issue firearms at all or will firearms still play a role in policing?

Rick Smith (RS): For the foreseeable future, I think police will still carry firearms. The idea is to make non-lethal alternatives so effective and reliable that police don’t USE their firearms anymore. I would say police will continue to carry firearms for at least a decade after we have passed the mark, meaning, the first challenge on us is to deliver non-lethal weapons that are literally 100% reliable such that they are a suitable substitute (they are not today). And from that moment in time, there is going to be a period of time needed as a proof point, because police do really have a super risky and dangerous job. And police in the U.S., in particular, have a challenging job because they’re doing work in a country with something like more than 300 million firearms in circulation. So the risk of them running into someone with a firearm is very high….I think what will happen first is that they will still carry firearms, but they will find that they will be using them less and less frequently as the reliability of less deadly technology increases, because indeed this other system is getting the job done. And once we’ve reached sufficient proof of that point then I think it’s reasonable to say, ok, do we still need to carry these around? 

BB: In your book, when referring to police use of force, you write, “When non-lethal force performs better than lethal force, killing becomes unjustifiable.” How close would you say we are to having non-lethal force options that, in a practical sense, are better than firearms?

RS: We have figured out the operating system for weapons that can incapacitate with the same reliability as guns in a laboratory environment. But the world is not a laboratory. So, today we have figured out the effective stimulation regime that it takes to incapacitate someone. The challenge is around the delivery mechanism…..In the real world there become these practical barriers that reduce the reliability compared to traditional firearms that blow right through those barriers…..To give ourselves a bit of a pass, firearms did have a 500 year head start on us, so they’re ahead. We’re catching up. So I’d say we’re sort of at the Derringer stage right now, or maybe at the double barrel shotgun….We need to get where we have many more shots of capability, where the accuracy is higher, where we’ve really solved the clothing penetration barrier issues with high reliability.

BB: Given that there are several nations in the world where patrol officers are not routinely armed, such as Iceland, Ireland, and the UK, do you view any of these nations as a test case for some of your ideas? Are there any places in the world that you see are truly taking the lead in this idea of putting an end to sanctioned killing?

RS: Yes I absolutely see the unarmed police forces as the alpha patient….We’re deeply engaged with the thought leaders in UK policing on this exact topic. What does it take for a non-lethal weapon to fill that gap, so that you do not feel the need to routinely arm front line officers? The next thing I would say is for us going after the armed police in countries that are non gun cultures, so for example, France, Germany, Italy. So you have these continental European police forces, where most officers are carrying a gun….It almost feels like that gun is a little bit out of place…So, as I think about this, we start with the unarmed police and try to prevent them from feeling the need that they have to go up the scale…Then we go after the countries where a de-escalation from a pistol to a highly effective, highly reliable non-lethal weapon is more culturally acceptable.

BB: The title of your book is ambitious: “The End of Killing.” In it, you clarify that you are mostly focused on sanctioned killing, such as, by police or military. What kind of feedback have you received now that the book is out, particularly from police and military practitioners?

RS: In policing, its been much more positive than I expected….I was expecting more of a backlash, and I would say, 90% is highly supportive…I was just at the Chiefs of Police conference and I had an officer come up to me, and he looks at me and says, “Hey I’m a firearms trainer and I want to talk to you about your book.” And, emotionally, I thought, oh my gosh, here we go, this guy’s not going to be a fan…And he paused for a moment and he said, “I’m such a huge fan of what you’re doing.” He went on to say to me, “If you can deliver this, this will be fantastic.” I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well the police are reacting. I have yet to meet a police officer who wants to kill someone…they understand the gravity of the situation, and the lives that can be ruined in an instance, including their own lives and careers.

BB: From the policing perspective, what do you see as the primary barriers that would prevent or hinder your stated goal of “Policing without killing—by 2030?”

RS: There are the technical barriers that I’ve talked about in terms of weapon performance. I feel like those are more in our control, because that’s just physics, and time, and engineering, and experimentation. The bigger barriers are going to be around the psychology of our customers and of the public…I think we’ll get over the psychology with our customers reasonably well…The big change is going to be getting them to leave the gun in the holster when they’re going through the door and pull this other thing out….So even once the weapon is really working well, we just have a huge training and psychology hurdle to overcome.

Rick’s book, “The End of Killing” can be found on Amazon and you can also learn more about Rick’s book by visiting: https://www.axonrick.com.

Burke Brownfeld is a criminal justice writer, speaker, and trainer. He was a Consulting Producer for the film Charm City. Burke served as a police officer with the Alexandria Police and as the Manager of Infrastructure Protection for the Metro Transit Police in Washington, DC.

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