The evolution of 'less lethal' tools

The world of less lethal weapons has evolved over the last 20 years. It all started with the Lake Erie Chemical Company, a division of Smith & Wesson, releasing a spray form of a chemical we now call Mace. Mace was embraced over the years by reluctant Law Enforcement officers, and over time it became standard issue not just for officers, but also for daughters on their first day of college.

But Mace had its problems. Although it was extremely effective most of the time, there were times when Mace simply did not do the job. If a person was emotionally disturbed, or highly intoxicated, Mace would not stop them.

By the late 80’s, it was time for something new. Pepper spray was introduced to the U.S. Postal service as a dog repellant. Having been around since the ancient Chinese used oils from peppers in makeshift rockets to attack their enemy, modern research showed pepper spray was safe to use on humans. Again, a reluctant public accepted the idea of this new defense tool, making it standard issue for Gen X’ers going to college.

(AP photo)
(AP photo)

Imagine yourself, 20 years ago, hearing the stories of less lethal options that are available today. Would you ever have believed that a spray bottle could stop a hopped up linebacker from attacking? Would you have believed that an electric gun could electrocute people into submission without injuring them? Five years ago, would you have imagined a “ray gun” that can disperse a large crowd without sound or a visible beam? That is where we are at today. The ingenuity never seems to stop.

The latest offering from Raytheon carries a lot of promise, and is being installed in a Los Angeles County Jail soon. As with most less lethal weapons, this tool works by causing discomfort. The gun radiates heat into a small beam, barely penetrating the skin. From what I have seen, it is extremely effective in making someone want to move from where they are. It remains to be seen if it will be effective in our application, but I have high hopes.

So what’s next? An invisible heat fence that can eliminate the need for conventional fences? The possibilities are endless, but so are the criticisms. There is a small but loud group that feels we should only be allowed to carry “pool noodles” as weapons, and that our uniforms should be decorated with flowers. Although these people may be well intentioned, they are also dangerously naïve about the job we do and the dangers we face.

Less lethal technology has allowed us to handle dangerous situations much more safely. Safely for us and safely for the bad guy. It is often frustrating to listen to the media when less lethal options are deployed, and when they aren’t. If we deploy a less lethal tactic, like the TASER, we are criticized for using a barbaric tool to gain compliance. If we have to move to the realm of lethal force, which no one enjoys, then the first question the media asks is why we did not just use our TASERS.

Less lethal tools will continue to be controversial, as long as there are injuries associated with their use. Often, injuries occur as a result of an officer’s or an inmate’s behavior — not an inherent defect in the less lethal weapon. What the public often forgets is that without less lethal tools, there would be a lot more lethal force applications. When injuries, or in the worst cases — death — happen, it is important we learn from them and adjust our techniques.

I received a call from an attorney friend not too long ago, wanting to know how pepper spray can be considered a viable option in the case he was defending. In this case the officer was under fire for using O.C. on a 17 year old during a struggle. After the struggle the juvenile was found to have a knife in his pocket. The parents sued, claiming that the application of O.C. was cruel and unusual. The courts were actually considering allowing this case to go to trial.

I did not testify in this case, but I gave the attorney the information he needed to get the case dismissed. First and foremost, there are no restrictions made by the manufacturers on the age of the person being exposed. In no part of the officers’ training had there been any talk of an age requirement to use O.C.

Further, the suspect was armed and violent. Granted, the officer did not know that the suspect was armed at the time of the confrontation, but that does not make that fact less important. The weapon on the juvenile goes to show state of mind. During the struggle the teen kept reaching for the pocket that contained the knife, something that prompted the officer to use the O.C.

There has been no evidence to suggest that O.C. works differently on teenagers than on adults. There are warnings about infants, but obviously this is not a problem for us. Assessing someone’s exact age isn’t easy when you are physically restraining them, so that factor had to come into play.

Knowing all of this, I asked the attorney to go back 20 years, and find out what an officer back then would have done to control the juvenile. Depending on the state, an inmate would at the least have been beat into submission. If the juvenile was able to produce the weapon, chances are he would have been shot.

This makes the 20 minute effect of pepper spray seem nominal doesn’t it? The outcry in this case was all about the person’s age — something we do not always have time to factor into our decision making process. We can hardly stop and ask for an age or identification when we are fighting for our lives. The court agreed, and the case was dismissed.

The law has upheld the use of less lethal tools when appropriate. It is up to us to make sure that we are using the tools as intended. It is also critical that we continue to understand and abide by the use of force continuum, taking each situation as it presents itself. No two calls are the same, and two different officers may handle the same situation differently.

The future of less lethal weapons is already in the minds of today’s officers. Through discussion and encouragement we can develop tomorrow’s weapons to make our job, and the public, safer. Keep a sharp eye out for the newest technologies, as the next one may save your life.


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