Civil Liberties

Pepper Spray, Tasers, and LRADs — What's Behind the Explosion of 'Less Lethal' Weapons for Crowd Control?

From the battlefield of Afghanistan to your local Occupation, the government has invested big bucks in weapons that don't cause permanent damage.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in the research and development of more "media-friendly" weapons for everyday policing and crowd control, and as uprisings around the world spread, the demand for nonlethal weapons is increasing. 

According to an October report by the Homeland Security Research Corporation, the global market for "less lethal" weapons is predicted to triple by 2020, with more than half of the current market devoted to crowd dispersal weapons like those being used against protesters at Occupy Wall Street.

Americans have a rich history of taking to the streets to demand social justice.  From the labor strikes of the progressive era to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 60s and 70s, the reaction by the powers-that-be has been the same: send in the riot police. As the Occupy Wall Street movement advances this tradition, the powerful have again reacted with overwhelming force. But the riot police of yesterday were armed much differently than they are today.    

Today’s arsenal includes a broad array of weapons that are meant, not to kill, but to force compliance by inflicting pain without leaving permanent injury. The Pentagon's approved term for these weapons is "non-lethal" or "less-lethal" and they are designed to disperse crowds, empty streets, and incapacitate defiant individuals.    

As rapid advancements in media and telecommunications technologies allowed people to record and publicize images and video of undue force more than ever before, a 1997 joint report from the Pentagon and the Justice Department hinted at the purpose of nonlethal weapons: 

    A further consideration that affects how the military and law enforcement apply force is the greater presence of members of the media or other civilians who are observing, if not recording, the situation. Even the lawful application of force can be misrepresented to or misunderstood by the public. More than ever, the police and the military must be highly discreet when applying force.   

As journalist Ando Arike  wrote in a 2010 article in Harpers Magazine, "The result is what appears to be the first arms race in which the opponent is the general population.”   

The Whole World Is Watching  

The demand for non-lethal weapons is rooted in the rise of television, a medium that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, let everyday Americans witness the violent tactics used to suppress the civil rights and anti-war movements of the era.  This new dynamic popularized the slogan, “the whole world is watching”, chanted by antiwar protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968 as TV cameras captured a police riot against peaceful demonstrators.   

When Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) used nonviolent direct action to challenge segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, they captured unprecedented media attention as a thousand high school students took to the streets in defiance of a court injunction.  On orders from Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, officers attacked demonstrators with high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs. Scenes of the ensuing mayhem caused an international outcry, leading to federal intervention by the Kennedy administration.  

Years later, King and the SCLC employed similar tactics in Selma, Alabama, where the police violently repressed civil rights activists.  In what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” the news media captured Alabama state troopers charging peaceful protesters with tear gas, clubs and cattle prods. The graphic TV footage provoked outrage across the country, and a week later Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act.   

This was also a decade of urban riots.  Sparked by the economic, social, and political inequality experienced in the ghettos of America – and rampant police brutality -- urban unrest exploded in hundreds of cities.  In the late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, to investigate the riots, setting the stage for advancement in police riot control tactics and weapons.  

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” said the report, blaming, “white racism … for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” The commission made sweeping recommendations about how to remedy the social injustice plaguing African-American communities, including heavy public investment in education, employment, housing, and law enforcement to help lift the inner-city ghettos out of poverty. Republicans immediately condemned this approach as soft on crime, and the Johnson administration joined in, refusing to finance the proposed remedies. 

The only proposal that stuck was the suggestion for a different approach to riot control. In a section about excessive force used against rioters, the report argued, “The harmful effects of overreaction are incalculable. The Commission condemns moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns, and tanks. Weapons which are designed to destroy, not to control, have no place in densely populated urban communities.”   

Instead, the report advised that the government, “develop guidelines governing the use of control equipment and provide alternatives to the use of lethal weapons. Federal support for research in this area is needed.”  

The recommendations for riot control were quickly implemented in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) within the  Department of Justice, an agency that administers grants to state and local police departments. Although the funds were initially very modest, this trickle of federal money to state and local law enforcement would eventually turn into billions, helping to militarize police departments decades later.  

According to Arike, the LEAA “over the next decade released $12 billion for local police to modernize their training and hardware; police departments across the country were soon stocking up on CS [teargas] and gas masks.” The LEAA was also equipped with its very own research arm, the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (now the National Institute of Justice or NIJ), which “spawned an entire cottage industry devoted to producing “nonlethal control equipment,” including handheld dispensers of “chemical irritants,” “blunt trauma” projectiles like the rubber bullets used by the British in Northern Ireland, electrical devices like the “shock baton,” and the Taser, the first version of which appeared at this time.”  

After the riots settled and antiwar protesters went home, the nonlethal weapons field was temporarily neglected. The primary focus of law enforcement became the War on Drugs, which expanded dramatically under the Reagan administration in the 1980s. It wasn’t until the mid-'90s that the government had a renewed interest in nonlethal weapons.     

The CNN Effect  

According to Nielsen Media Research, which collects TV viewing statistics, one of most highly watched live television broadcasts in U.S. history took place in 1991, when 85.6 million viewers in 50.6 million American households tuned in to CNN on the first night of the first Gulf War.  

Alarmed by the potential power of 24-hour news to influence future decision-making — a phenomenon dubbed “The CNN Effect” — the Committee on Foreign Affairs held hearings on the Impact of Television on U.S. Foreign Policy in 1994.  

Meanwhile, in 1991 U.S. law enforcement was dealing with its own “CNN effect” when a bystander in Los Angeles videotaped LAPD officers beating 25-year-old Rodney King with metal riot batons and shooting him twice with a Taser while other officers looked on impassively. The video was aired over and over again, enraging the public and increasing racial tension between the LAPD and the black community. When the four officers who assaulted King were acquitted, Los Angeles erupted in riots, resulting in 50 deaths and over 2,000 injuries.    

Whether or not the CNN effect actually sways decision making remains contentious, but there is no denying that policymakers were becoming increasingly concerned about its ramifications.   

The Justice Department and Pentagon became increasingly aware of how images of violence against civilians played out publicly, both at home and abroad. In 1994 they joined forces in a Memorandum of Understanding that reflected “a growing convergence between the technology required for military operations and the technology required for law enforcement.”   

This led to the establishment of the DoD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program (JNLWP), whose stated aim is “to provide warfighters a family of nonlethal weapon systems with a range of capabilities across the full spectrum of threats and crises.” Laying out the precise purpose of the military’s sudden interest in these weapons, a 1999 report by the Council of Foreign relations noted that nonlethals “are important because they permit military engagement at a lower level of violence,'' adding that politically, ''less violence equals more acceptability.”  

Over the years, the JNLWP has partnered with the NIJ, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the private sector, and even foreign governments on research and development in the advancement of nonlethal weapons. According to Arike, “By the end of the decade, NATO, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Canada had begun similar programs, linked to the JNLWD through liaisons and research-sharing agreements.”   

A Second Generation of Crowd Control Weapons  

According to a 2009 report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, the JNLWP has received a total of $817 million in funding since its inception — money that has been used to develop a second generation of nonlethal weapons built for use by both the military and domestic law enforcement.  

Unlike rubber bullets that leave swollen bruises and scars, these newer weapons mirror the effects of the Taser in that they render brutality invisible. As Arike points out, “The trend is now away from chemical and ‘kinetic’ weapons that rely on physical trauma and toward post-kinetic weapons that, as researchers put it, ‘induce behavioral modification’ more discreetly.” 

The Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, developed by American Technology Corporation, is a second-generation nonlethal weapon that transmits an unbearable ear-splitting siren up to a hundred yards away. Americans first took notice of this device when police used it in Pittsburgh to drive away protesters at the 2009 G-20 summit. While LRAD may not be deadly, it can cause permanent hearing damage. According to the Los Angeles Times, the LAPD, which has an undisclosed number of LRADs, said that the device would have been helpful in last week’s raid on the Occupy LA encampment. 

Another is the Active Denial System, or ADS. It works like an open-air microwave oven, projecting a focused beam of electromagnetic radiation to heat the skin of its targets to 130 degrees. This creates an intolerable burning sensation, forcing those in its path to instinctively flee (a response the Air Force dubs the "goodbye effect").  

According to the JNLWP, “This capability will add to the ability to stop, deter, and turn back an advancing adversary, providing an alternative to lethal force.” Although ADS is described as non-lethal, a 2008 report by physicist and less-lethal weapons expert Dr. Jürgen Altmann suggests otherwise:   

... the ADS provides the technical possibility to produce burns of second and third degree. Because the beam ... is wider than human size, such burns would occur over considerable parts of the body, up to 50 percent of its surface. Second- and third-degree burns covering more than 20 percent of the body surface are potentially life-threatening — due to toxic tissue-decay products and increased sensitivity to infection — and require intensive care in a specialized unit. Without a technical device that reliably prevents retriggering on the same target subject, the ADS has a potential to produce permanent injury or death.  

Despite the weapon being too controversial for use on the battlefield in Afghanistan, it appears that nothing is too sadistic for use on U.S. prisoners, so the ADS has since been modified into a smaller version by Raytheon for use in law enforcement. Last year, the renamed Assault Intervention System (AIS) was installed at the Pitchess Detention Center's North County Correction Facility at the behest of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). Former LASD commander Charles “Sid” Heal had been lobbying for the pain ray for years, calling it the "Holy Grail of Crowd Control," due to "its ability to make people scatter, almost instantly."  

The device is operated by a jail officer with a joystick and is intended to break up prison riots, inmate brawls, and prevent assaults on officers. The pain ray’s use in the Pitchess Detention Center is a pilot program, and if successful, the weapon could find its way into other prisons around the country. According to Aviation Week, the NIJ has even expressed interest in a “handheld, rifle-sized, short-range weapon that could be effective at tens of feet for law enforcement officials." 

The Impact  

Perhaps less-lethal tactics for crowd control do result in fewer injuries and less bloodshed than the kind of violence witnessed during the '60s and '70s. But the notion that these weapons can successfully stifle dissent has been overwhelmingly discredited by the reaction to Occupy Wall Street. The pepper-spray, flash-bang grenades, tear gas, and bean bag rounds used to break up Occupy encampments have provoked nothing but outrage around the country, galvanizing the solidarity and resolve of the movement. Occupy Wall Street has taught us that as long as the whole world is watching, riot police and nonlethal weapons will never be a match for the power of a broad social movement demanding redress for their grievances. 

Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @RaniaKhalek.