Use of lethal force to control criminals is one of the most difficult issues in policing and comes with heavy consequences for those involved.
In one of the toughest situations I ever faced as an officer, I once came across an irrational man who had parked his car in front of a busy electronics store in Canoga Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, two days before Christmas. After dousing his vehicle with gallons of gasoline, he stood up through the sunroof of his car, poured gallons more over his entire body, and then attempted to light himself and his car on fire with flares.
With a mass of holiday shoppers walking by unaware or simply ignoring the disturbing scene, and numerous potential victims who could have been engulfed in a potential fireball and explosion, my partner and I had limited alternatives: We could shoot to stop this person or we could try to dissuade him, which, if we failed, would very likely result in injuries to bystanders and ourselves. After a tense standoff and risky maneuvers, the situation was resolved without any injuries.
Recently, officers in my division responded to a domestic violence situation where the suspect was reportedly holding his two children hostage. It reminded me of the July 10, 2005, incident in which Jose Peña, high on drugs, used his 18-month-old daughter, Suzie, as a human shield during a shootout with LAPD officers. Both Suzie and her father were killed.
Incidents like these highlight anachronistic, ancient police practices that rely on lethal force. These lethal options sometimes end up with unintended victims, involve the police in lengthy and resource-intensive standoffs, and end up costing heavily in public support as well as in civil court judgments.
New technologies in the pipeline
Law enforcement agencies have made significant improvements in community policing and intelligence-led-policing, contributing to a consistent decline in violent crime. However, when it comes to the application of force and technology, we are still mired in primitive practices – especially considering that nonlethal (also called less-than-lethal) technologies exist. They can prevent reliance on brute force and can be used in the most difficult situations without injuring officers and hostages, and without permanently injuring a suspect.
Nonlethal weapons work on the principle of causing pain or physically disabling a suspect with the small likelihood of serious or permanent injury. These devices include chemical irritants with various delivery methods, Tasers and other stun devices, beanbag shotgun rounds, rubber bullets, and others. While exceptions do exist, nonlethal devices save lives and prevent serious injuries to suspects and officers when the only alternative may be to shoot and kill the suspect.
Through the years, I have seen or reviewed numerous incidents where nonlethal force devices were used. I have concluded that nonlethal weapons are far superior to the alternatives. Exceptions notwithstanding, nonlethal weapons do not cause permanent or major injuries; their use has much less liability compared with lethal weapons; and they save the police substantially in fewer injuries to the officers. While none of the nonlethal weapons currently in use could have helped in the case of Suzie Peña, technology already exists that could have prevented that tragic outcome.
Even better options, mostly emerging from military research, are in the pipeline, their use stalled due to their association with the military. It is time that we focus on the use of such technology in police force application.
Nonlethal tools that could be potentially deployed to disable suspects in hostage situations or where an armed and dangerous criminal has barricaded himself include directed-energy weapons (lasers and radio frequencies of microwave or millimeter wave beams). These energy waves work on the principle of causing intense pain or temporary blindness, without causing permanent damage.
Acoustic weapons, similarly, can disable an armed suspect hundreds of yards away by focusing sound waves specifically on the suspect without causing injuries. When criminals have taken hostages inside a structure, malodorants (foul-smelling chemicals) can be used to incapacitate criminals. (They would also temporarily affect hostages.)
All of these technologies exist but await application. Police leadership resists adopting unfamiliar technologies. And weapons designed for the military carry a stigma when applied to civilian law enforcement.
The American Civil Liberties Union and civic organizations and community leaders have rightly raised important concerns related to nonlethal weapon use by the police. The use of Tasers has resulted in the deaths of some suspects. It has also been argued that nonlethal weapons could be used as a torture device by officers, and that the threshold for nonlethal weapon use has been brought down so much that these weapons are sometimes unnecessarily being used on uncooperative individuals.
The possible danger of nonlethal weapons doesn't come from their potential to injure but from inappropriate use. However, the potential to misuse a key technology should not be the criterion for rejection. If officers abuse firearms, they can take someone's life; but we don't use that possibility to argue that officers should not have firearms.
Positive use of new weapons
The potential for positive use of nonlethal technology, however, is promising. Consider, for example, a suspect who is holding a gun to a hostage's head. Now, the only force possibility is deploying a sniper. But if the acoustic-weapon technology were available, it could disable a suspect without firing a shot.
Critics of nonlethal devices routinely exaggerate the risks of these weapons by selectively highlighting fatalities or serious injuries caused by Tasers, pepper spray, or other stun devices to vilify nonlethal weapons. Those who support more humane treatment of prisoners and are concerned about the use of force by the police should embrace nonlethal technology and work with the police to support its development and implementation.
Nonlethal weapons are undoubtedly controversial, and opponents have raised important concerns. However, critics should recognize that nonlethal weapons have saved far more lives than the exceptional deaths caused by them. Critics should join hands with the police and help develop policies that govern the use of nonlethal weapons, assess the risk associated with nonlethal weapons, and propose proper training and oversight regulating their use.
Police reliance on old tools, such as firearms and batons, needs to be phased out in favor of less violent and more humane ways to control violent and noncompliant suspects. Policing in the 21st century will be revolutionized by technology. Nonlethal weapons will be part of that revolution. We need to ensure these technologies are prudently analyzed and implemented.
Sunil Dutta,PhD, is a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department. These are solely his opinions.