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TASER inventor Jack Cover, rest in peace

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Editor’s Note: Jack Cover named his life-saving invention after his favorite childhood character, in one of his favorite books: Tom A. Swift and his Electric Rifle. In early February, Jack Cover passed away at age 88. PoliceOne Columnist Greg Meyer delivered the following eulogy at Cover’s memorial service on February 26, 2009. We present this in memory of Jack Cover, who worked so hard and did so much to help law enforcement officers stay safe on patrol.

Jack Cover was one of several people in my life that I loved to stay in touch with, even though our official business was finished decades earlier. There’s something special about a guy who has an idea that would make the world a better place, and puts his all into developing it, and struggles his way to success against strong odds. Jack did a lot of that. You know he was a WWII pilot (no slouch, he flew P-51 Mustangs), and you know he was Chief Scientist at North American and helped put men on the moon via the Apollo program.

What I mainly know about is the TASER that Jack invented. I got caught up in the magic of it all, then for nearly 30 years Jack and I stayed in touch. A phone call here, a visit to his and Ginny’s home there, an occasional meal out while we talked about the TASER and all that it has meant to law enforcement. I feel so lucky and so blessed that Ginny called me a few weeks ago and told me Jack was in declining health. Because the very next day I had a business appointment not too far from where Jack was, and got to visit him that final time. The past few years Ginny would tell me, “Well, Greg, his Alzheimer’s is pretty bad, he won’t even know you.” Sorry, Ginny! When Jack and I got together, we had great fun reliving the old days together, and talking about the modern versions of the TASER that Rick Smith and the rest of the crew at TASER International have distributed to law enforcement the world over.

I met Jack in mid-1979, as a young cop assigned to Planning and Research Division to research and test a variety of nonlethal weapons. A few months earlier, a lady named Eulia Love was gunned down in Los Angeles as she attacked two Los Angeles Police officers with a boning knife. The shooting was surely justifiable, but it was also very tragic—obviously for Mrs. Love and her family, but also for the community and certainly for the two officers involved. Under LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates—who is with us here today—we began looking for tools and tactics that might have a better outcome than shooting someone in certain situations.

In the early and mid-70’s, Jack had twice approached the LAPD, but found little support for the TASER. But in 1979, the time was right for another look. I met with Jack, visited his small factory in the City of Industry, brought a ballistics specialist out to do some test firing, and got approval for a field test. We really needed something that worked out there. Because in addition to the Eulia Love shooting and similar situations, our officers were combating a literal epidemic of PCP on the streets. That terrible drug puts people totally out of control and gives them what doctors call “super-human strength,” so awesome that it is impossible to adequately describe to anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to try to put handcuffs on such a person. A couple of police officers in California had literally been murdered by violent PCP suspects who overpowered them, and dozens more had received crippling injuries. Dealing with PCP suspects was an every-night occurrence when I was a young cop on the street. And Jack told me he had the solution.

So we trained a bunch of street sergeants and put a couple dozen TASERs out in a couple of our divisions that had the biggest PCP problem. After a week, we took the TASERs back. They had been used several times, but had failed to subdue the suspect. I let Jack know we were having the problem. His answer was, “Hmmm, let me see what I can do.” He took the TASERs back to his factory and basically tuned them up! He had designed the TASER to be seven watts, but for LAPD he tuned them up to 11 watts. We put them back out on the street, and had immediate success! The very first night, two sergeants in two divisions confronted two violent PCP suspects and put them down with the TASER! And the community loved it, mainly because of the lightshow that you would see, especially at night, as some of the electricity arced across the sweaty PCP suspect’s body! Plus, nobody had to get beaten with a nightstick. Plus, nobody—including the cops—end up in the hospital. Jack had a winner, LAPD had a winner, and the rest is history. A big part of my life became dedicated to spreading the word about police policy and training and equipment and tactics that are designed to literally save lives and prevent serious injuries to officers and suspects. And reduce civil liability for police agencies. And reduce the costs of disability pensions for injured officers. And improve law enforcement’s public image because fewer people were getting hurt and killed in major use-of-force incidents.

Years later, with Chief Gates’ blessing, I accessed LAPD’s use of force records and did my master’s thesis on nonlethal weapons, including the TASER. The question was, had the TASER and another nonlethal weapon we adopted, lived up to our hopes and expectations that we would see a reduction in significant injuries to officers and suspects? The answer was an overwhelming “Yes!”

I don’t know that anyone can properly count the number of lives that have been saved because so many cops use TASERs these days. Oh, sure, there’s always the naysayers who think that TASERs and other police nonlethal weapons are bad things. But frankly, the naysayers wouldn’t know a legitimate use of force if it hit them in the face! And they would have no idea how to save lives and prevent injuries if they found themselves in a police officer’s shoes.

In the mid-1980’s I personally was present when the TASER saved two would-be suicides. And when a crazy guy was getting ready to attack some officers with a knife, and the TASER took him down harmlessly. And when a PCP suspect was attacking a bus full of people and, unable to wait for additional officers, I took him down with a TASER when I was a sergeant in Hollywood Division.

There are so many stories. When I notified a private internet site that many retired LAPD officers subscribe to, about losing Jack, lots of them wrote me their TASER stories. There isn’t time here to relate them all, but suffice it to say that many of them spoke about the TASER saving their hind ends in difficult situations out there in the middle of the night. Others reminded me that officers in the early days managed to accidentally TASER themselves or their partners who got in the way while they were getting used to a new devices and new tactics that allowed them to knock down a violent, resisting suspect from 10 or 12 feet away—and not get themselves bloody or their uniforms dirty in the process!

Dan Watson is a retired LAPD commander, and for years has been the Chief of Police of South Pasadena. He told me a story about using the TASER when he was a young sergeant. The PCP suspect was cornered in a bathroom and standing in a bathtub, and the fight was about to be on when Dan deployed the TASER.

“Then, all of a sudden he went silent and still. I thought I’d killed him. I said, “Stand Up.” He said, “Yes Sir” and stood up. “Raise your hands.” “Yes Sir.” “Step out of the tub.” “Yes sir.” “Walk to the living room.” “Yes sir.” It went like this until he was down and handcuffed. I have never seen a transformation where someone went from being completely incoherent to totally lucid and cooperative like this. After the big man was cuffed, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and tried to act like it was no big thing - just another routine use of the Taser. I didn’t want all these officers to know that’d I’d been scared to death that it wouldn’t work and we’d have to fight him, or that I’d killed him in the tub.”

Four years ago in December, my good friend Major Steve Ijames, of the Springfield, Missouri Police Department, wrote a letter to Jack Cover. Steve wanted to be here, but couldn’t, and he asked me to share it.

Dear Mr. Cover:

It was a great honor and pleasure to speak with you last week. I really appreciate you taking the time to offer some insight on what led to your awesome invention. I’ve been a police officer for 28 years, and had the privilege of working in almost every conceivable assignment; along with teaching the police craft for the state department in 31 countries (nice places like Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Northern Ireland, etc.). During that time, I’ve concluded that the TASER is the single most important police device ever invented. It is my opinion that we have only scratched the surface of TASER capability, and the long term positive impact it will have on accomplishing the police mission with reduced potential for death and injury. Very few people can look in the mirror and see someone who has saved countless lives in the past, and will do so for many years to come by virtue of his vision, inventiveness, and expertise. You are one such man, and law enforcement thanks you for your contribution. -- Major Steve Ijames

One of my current involvements is as a member of the national advisory board of the Force Science Research Center in Minnesota. The other day, I received this note from Joshua Lego, who works at the Center:

Dear Greg, I was sorry to learn last week that your friend Mr. Jack Cover passed away. By all accounts he was a marvelous person. Last night I watched as two veterans and one rookie officer on my tour saved a man’s life who was attempting to commit suicide by cop. These officers also spared two children from witnessing the violent death of their father. It was remarkable. I never met Mr. Cover but I appreciate him and will share his memory.

I’m sure I’ve gone on much too long about my friend Jack and what he has done for all of us. Let me close by telling you that in 1991, when my master’s thesis was published, I wrote the following on the dedication page:

“To Jack Cover, who brought Tom Swift to life. And to the street cops, who see what most should never see, know what most will never know, and do what most could never do. With the right tools, they will do even better.”

For about 20 years I’ve ended my use-of-force lectures around the country with a PowerPoint slide that asks this question: “If we can put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, why can’t we put a man on the ground and take him safely to jail?”

Jack did both! He put a man on the moon. And he gave the world’s cops the right tool to put a man on the ground. Thanks, Jack. Thanks for all the good you did for the world. And thanks for being such a good friend.

Greg Meyer, a retired Captain from the Los Angeles Police Academy, served for 30 years, including eight years as a commanding officer. Greg is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center, a member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).