Police toy with 'less lethal' guns

04/27/05

Do you prefer your police officers to be armed with a gun or a good old-fashioned truncheon or night stick? Or perhaps something in between: say a radio-frequency stun weapon, or a semiconductor laser that can bring down a man from across the street?

Such "less lethal" weapons are closer to reality than many people realise. New Scientist has learned that the research arm of the US justice department, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is funding research into three such devices, all of which are intended to be used by the nation's police forces to bring down suspects and control crowds. In theory they should be less harmful to both their intended targets and bystanders than existing weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets. But such is the secrecy shrouding the new weapons that it is impossible for independent outsiders to judge.

In a statement given to New Scientist, the NIJ has provided a limited description of all three devices. The first is a radio-frequency weapon being developed by Raytheon at Palo Alto, California, which appears to be based on a similar concept to the Active Denial System weapon that Raytheon developed for the US marines in 2001. The military version is designed to heat people's skin with a 95-gigahertz microwave beam (New Scientist, 27 October 2001, p 26). With a range of 600 metres, it causes severe pain but, according to Raytheon, no damage. The NIJ has contracted the company to build a prototype suitable for use by police forces. Because it will be portable, it will presumably use less power and work over a shorter range.

The second device is described by the NIJ as "the first man-portable heat compliance weapon of its kind". It uses a semiconductor laser for "force protection, crowd control, and access denial". Though the Air Force Research Laboratory in Kirtland, New Mexico, has been contracted to produce a test-bed system, there is no known weapon, military or otherwise, that appears to work this way. Its effects and effectiveness can only be guessed at.

Further clues to the nature of these two devices can be gleaned from a November 2004 report produced by the NIJ's research division. In it, Joe Cecconi of the NIJ described a possible directed-energy prototype weapon as being shotgun-sized, producing an area of intense heat 15 centimetres in diameter at a range of 16 metres, with a magazine capable of delivering 12 shots each of less than a second. The NIJ would not confirm or deny whether this was a description of either the radio-frequency or the heat weapon.

A third type of less-lethal weapon commissioned by the NIJ is a laser which produces a "plasma flash bang" at the point of impact, stunning and disorienting the victim. This is similar to the Pulsed Energy Projectile (PEP) system developed for the US marines (New Scientist, 5 March, p 8). The military system uses a chemical laser and weighs around 200 kilograms. The NIJ has commissioned Sterling Photonics of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to produce a "technology platform" for a police version that will be electrically powered and portable. All three research programmes are due to end in September. But the information provided by the NIJ has so little detail about factors such as wavelengths and power levels that it is impossible to judge how safe the new weapons might be. There is no publicly available information on the effects of the Active Denial System weapon or plasma flash bangs.

As yet there are no non-lethal directed-energy weapons in use by law enforcers. The closest comparable devices are police electric-shock weapons, the best known of which is the Taser. This weapon was introduced in the 1970s, and became popular with police forces in the US during the 1990s. Critics have recently alleged that Tasers have caused the deaths of a number of suspects, and are prone to abuse (see "Taser troubles"), raising concerns that this pattern could be repeated with the new weapons.

Neil Davison of the Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project at the University of Bradford, UK, says more information about these weapons needs to be made public. "The non-lethal weapons community is always complaining about bad treatment in the media. But without more transparency about what is being developed, and what the effects on people are, suspicion is bound to be created." He also points out that as these weapons may not leave any identifiable traces, allegations of abuse will be hard to prove. He also notes there has long been a demand for a capability to turn the power output of these weapons up or down. "Some of these weapons may have a 'lethal' setting," he warns.

Mike McBride, editor of the authoritative Jane's Police and Security Equipment journal, says: "Until these systems have proven to be safer than existing systems- baton rounds, Tasers, tear gas- there is little likelihood of them being deployed operationally."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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