Hidden Dangers in the Use of Non-Lethal Technology

Six years ago, Capt. Sid Heal of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department suggested, at a seminar on non-lethal technology, that the technology used by police to carry out their law-enforcement duties is likely to change more in the next ten years than it had over the past two centuries.

Today, slightly more than halfway through that ten years, his comments already have been validated. One result, though, is that law-enforcement administrators intent on protecting their officers, reducing injuries to suspects and any others on the scene of a crime, and keeping within ever-present budget limits are being bombarded with a broad spectrum of new, “improved,” and “upgraded” items of equipment.

To understand the extent of what has become a major issue facing these administrators it is first necessary to specify what is meant by the term non-lethal technology? The answer depends on the definition one chooses. Most if not all progressive police administrators seem to have been gravitating to the definition used by U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), which defines non-lethal weapons as “weapon systems that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or materiel, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment.”

It is important to note that the DOD policy does not require or expect non-lethal weapons “to have a zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent injuries.” It postulates, rather, that non-lethal weapons are intended to significantly reduce the probability of such fatalities or injuries, when compared to the number of fatalities or injuries that result from the use of traditional military weapons, which achieve their effects through the physical destruction of targets.

Understanding this definition puts the police administrator in the position of knowing that non-lethal weapons could indeed injure and – under ever-changing, dynamic, and unpredictable circumstances-might even kill. A simple pencil, designed and used as a low-cost and reliable writing instrument, could be a deadly weapon in the hands of a violent and determined suspect.

A Growing Arsenal of Difficult Choices

It is with those cautions in mind that today’s police administrator must evaluate the growing variety of non-lethal weapons now available. Most of those weapons fall into several distinct categories, including the following:

Chemical/Irritant Devices: Among these are chemical agents such as OC (Oleoresin Capsicum), CN (Chloracetophenon), and CS (Ochlorobenzylidene malonontrite). It is safe to say that these products have reduced injuries – to suspects as well as to police officers – more often, and more effectively, than any other “non-lethal” in the history of modern law enforcement. Such devices give the police officer the ability to use non-injuring force at a safe distance from the suspect. Manufacturers tout effective ranges to distances beyond twelve feet. Police officers know from experience, though, the distance where sprays are most frequently used – at three to five feet. But those three to five feet have prevented numerous injuries and saved many lives.

Blunt Trauma Instruments: These include both batons and extended-range “impact” weapons such as wood, rubber, foam, and beanbag types of rounds that can be fired from a variety of platforms. Batons have been in law enforcement for centuries. They have changed considerably in appearance, though, from the traditional, and extremely reliable, length of hickory to today’s high-tech expandable metal shafts.

Hybrids: These use projectiles that not only have a significant impact effect but also carry a chemical/irritant payload, and can be launched from a distance.

Conducted/Directed-Energy Weapons: Conducted-energy weapons generate an electrical pulse, within the device, that is transferred through a wire onto and against the skin or clothing of a remote subject, affecting the individual’s central nervous system; the intended result, almost always achieved, ranges from pain compliance to complete incapacitation. These devices, which are specifically designed to work without causing serious and/or lasting injury, are rapidly changing the way that modern law- enforcement agencies deal with combative suspects and/or emotionally disturbed persons.

In addition to the preceding, there also are under development – by various government agencies as well as private industry-a number of other non-lethal weapons and devices that use various forms of sound energy, light energy, laser energy, heat, and microwave energy to achieve their effects.

Many of these technologies were initially explored by branches of the U.S. military during the Cold War. Several of them have been taken off the shelf in recent years and are now being modified and refined for potential use by law-enforcement officials.

Homework, Research, and Careful Evaluation

All manufacturers want police departments to buy their products. The careful administrator will keep an open mind, but should also remember whose name is going to be on the litigation-which is one reason why the idea of independent evaluation is making its way into the vocabulary of the police administrator.

There are various safeguards to keep in mind before making a final choice: credible medical studies, for example, as well as accuracy studies and, most important of all, training programs all will be needed. After these have been reviewed and evaluated, the real homework starts. A few large departments are blessed with research and development bureaus with the equipment and staff needed to conduct a thorough in-house evaluation. Other departments look to the various government and university agencies that have equivalent resources and are willing to carry out similar evaluations.

The first and foremost of these agencies is the National Institute of Justice, the research and development arm of the Department of Justice, which for over a decade has been conducting behavioral research and physical science research on non-lethal weapons used by the military and in law enforcement. Publications on all types of non-lethal option testing are immediately available at the NIJ home page: www.opj.usdoj.gov/nij

Other excellent resources include The Justice Technology Information Network (JUSTNET) home page www.nlectc.org and The Justice Information Center (National Criminal Justice Reference Service) home page www.ncjrs.org. In addition, the Applied Research Laboratory at the Pennsylvania State University, designated as the Marine Corps Research University, has conducted extensive independent research on various non- lethal devices available both to law enforcement and the military. Its home page is www.arl.psu.edu

Media Reports and Other Hidden Dangers

The careful administrator must be able to distinguish scientific data from popular opinion-usually created through news outlets. The misleading media coverage of the recent tragic event involving a non-lethal device in Boston during last year’s baseball playoffs serves as a prime example. Law-enforcement departments received media reports that the death of a young woman had been caused by a bean-bag round. Other reports said it was a Pepperball® round, and still others reported the Taser® as the responsible tool. None of these reports were accurate.

More recently (16 January 2005), an article in The Boston Herald said that the energy of a Taser’s® “50,000-volt jolt” is “nearly 25 times that of an electric chair.” That statement is preposterous on its face, but those who read the article without doing further research do not know that. So the administrator must base his or her knowledge on solid research, not on media reports-or the manufacturer’s brochures.

The determination of the best and/or most effective non-lethals will vary by departments. One question that must be kept in mind is whether the device can be carried by the front-line patrol officer. It has been proven many times over that departments putting non-lethals into the hands of specialty teams do not always realize the potential of the devices they have selected. A reduction of more than 70 percent of officer injuries is possible when the right non-lethal is in the patrol officer’s hands-and the patrol officers are the ones responding to and stopping incidents from escalating to higher degrees of violence.

The cost of a specific device, which is often deceiving, is frequently far below the actual cost of deployment. So the administrator also must determine the cost of the appropriate end-user training, and annual re-training, and compare those figures to the long-term likely savings that will result from the reduction of officer injuries, suspect injuries, and averted liability costs.

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Jay Kehoe

Jay Kehoe



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