With New Nonlethal Weapons Comes Controversy

By Matthew Harwood

The U.S. military has completed biological effects research on a nonlethal weapon that makes its victim feel as if his skin is on fire.

According to

Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) officials at Wright-Patterson Air Base have announced the completion of an extensive bioeffects research program for an invisible, counter personnel, directed-energy weapon known as the Active Denial System.

The ADS works by using millimetre wave technology to focus a beam that is capable of rapidly heating a target’s skin, causing severe discomfort and prompting the individual to flee the beam.

The beam, researchers say, does not cause cancer or harm the reproductive system. Researchers have also designated eye and skin exposure thresholds and distances at which opponents are effectively repelled.

The point of this technology is to incapacitate someone without killing them and there seems to be an expanding marketplace for such innovations.

The private company Taser International is also close to making other "less-lethal" products available. Two products, recently featured by Forbes, are Shockwave and Extended-Range Electronic Projectile (XREP). Shockwave, set for a 2009 release, looks like a futuristic portable light system, but its electricity is used in a less benign way.

Press a button and "six electrified cartridges tethered by 25-foot wires ... shoot out in a 20-degree arc. Inch-long probes emitting 50,000 volts of electricity pierce through clothing and skin. If a human being is in their path, his or her muscles immediately flex and lock involuntarily."

The intended users of Shockwave are law enforcement for crowd control purposes during riots and other gatherings that can get out of control. (You can watch a promotional video, here.)

Taser International's second product, the XREP, is a barbed shell that can be fired directly from a 12-gauge shotgun. Accurate from 100 feet away, the XREP's barbs will penetrate the opponent's skin or clothing and release an electrical current through the person's body that will result in muscle spasm. Upon impact, a metal barb attached by a wire also falls out of the shell. If the person shot tries to grab the shell, he will receive another electrical shock through his hand. The XREP is set for a late 2008 release.

Controversy, naturally, surrounds such products.

As Assistant Editor Laura Spadanuta reported in this month's Security Management, the National Institute of Justice has been conducting research on whether or not stun guns harm their targets. Its interim findings suggest stun guns and related products will remain in the police arsenal.

The interim NIJ report found that 'there is no conclusive medical evidence within the state of current research that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of CED exposure.' The report went on to state that law enforcement 'need not refrain from deploying CEDs, provided the devices are used in accordance with accepted national guidelines,” such as the [International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP)] guidelines. 

As Taser's spokesman, Steve Tuttle, told Forbes "Police officers are paid to enforce the law, not to get hurt. Police need this. That's why we've survived the controversy around our products."

But NIJ's interim findings also called on more research into stun guns effects on "at-risk" populations, such as the elderly, people with heart disease, and children. Critics, such as Amnesty International, which sat on the NIJ study's review board, are heartened by calls for more research.

Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty's USA program, told Security Management she was pleased that the NIJ report called for additional data.

“One of the really important pieces there that they highlighted is something that we’ve been highlighting for years, that there are vulnerable populations that come into contact with police frequently….  We’re really concerned about people who are mentally ill, people who are under the influence of narcotics, people who are pregnant, people who have heart conditions, elderly, youth.  These are all populations that the NIJ study pointed to as needing special consideration.”

Amnesty International's concerns about nonlethal weapons come from its compiling of 350 cases where people receiving electrical shocks from stun guns died in police custody. According to coroner's reports, 40 of those cases listed stun guns as the possible cause of death.

When it comes to Taser's new Shockwave, Hashad told Forbes she's worried that police will not be able to discriminate between those healthy enough to receive a shock and those who aren't.

"We're asking police to consider whether someone they're about to 'tase' is an appropriate candidate given all the risks. How can they do that for six people at once?"

Hashad also is concerned about the duration of the shock administered by Taser's XREP. Whereas a traditional taser's shock lasts five seconds, the XREP's shock lasts 20 seconds. According to Amnesty's research, there was a disproportionate correlation between death and how many times and for how long someone was shocked.

A recent court decision also found Taser International guilty of partial negligence for not informing police that sustained use of tasers could have adverse effects. Police in California tried to subdue 40-year-old Robert Heston, who was high on methamphetamine, by shocking him multiple times. Heston went into cardiac arrest and died. The court ordered Taser to pay Heston's family $6.2 million in damages.

But situations like Heston's don't leave the police with many good options. And sometimes, the only options left after stun guns are much worse, proponents of stun guns say.

But others, like [Lorie] Fridell [of the University of South Florida's Department of Criminalogy], say stun guns can save lives. And she argues that even in certain situations that might pose higher risk of injury, the other options open to law enforcement might be far worse than the effect of a CED shock. She takes the example of a pregnant woman.

“You have to remember that this visibly pregnant woman is on our radar screen not because she’s sitting quietly on a bench. She is somehow resisting law enforcement. And you can imagine that there are scenarios in which you would much rather have the Taser than something else."


View Recent News (by day)


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.