Police With Non-Lethal Weapons Can Be Militarized, Too
Pain rays and sound cannons aren’t the answer
This is a response to David Trachtenberg’s op-ed advocating for more non-lethal weapons for cops.
We have a problem with police. For years, surplus military equipment has filtered into domestic law enforcement agencies across the country. Up-armored vehicles, assault rifles and a smorgasbord of non-lethal zap, shock and spray weapons are now commonplace even among small town cops.
As was bluntly made clear during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri—after a white police officer shot to death an unarmed black man—both local and state police agencies resorted to force against demonstrators, all while carrying rifles and wearing military camouflage, armored vests and gas masks.
In his recent op-ed, former Pentagon official David Trachtenberg rightly raises concerns about police militarization, and argues we should review the Defense Department’s “1033 program” which transfers military hardware to domestic police departments.
But he also argues domestic police departments should acquire more and better non-lethal weapons. This is a mistake.
It’s a mistake because these weapons not only are dangerous, they contribute to the larger problem of police relying too quickly on force—and too much force—when other options are available.
It’s not surprising surplus armored vehicles and military rifles have filtered into police armories. Police have dangerous jobs, and they risk encountering criminals armed with powerful AK-47 and AR-type rifles.
We’re a county awash in guns, and police will need similar weapons as long as that’s the case. Likewise, non-lethal weapons such as tasers make it so police officers are less likely to be injured, such as when having to physically fight a suspect with their hands and fists.
But Trachtenberg also supports introducing solid-state active denial technology, which he writes “shows particular promise for crowd dispersal.” These weapons beam out heat-producing millimeter waves which don’t penetrate deeply into the skin, but still cause excruciating pain. They’re crowd sizzlers—though the Pentagon’s Nonlethal Weapons Directorate insists there’s no long-term damage.
All well and good, unless deploying one risks frightening and enraging a crowd further. The fear that the Army’s Active Denial System—one such pain ray—would serve as Taliban propaganda led to its recall from Afghanistan before the system was ever used.
Another problem is that the military has only used the technology in controlled tests. Given the inherent unpredictability of crowds, using one of these weapons could cause a violent confrontation to escalate.
As the waves blast an agitated crowd with intense heat, there’s a risk of people being trampled as they panic and run. People might not even know what’s happening to them. As a 2013 report from the Project on International Security noted, people may drop to the ground when hit, risking overexposure and long-term injury.
There’s also a larger—more general—problem with non-lethal weapons. As Radley Balko points out in Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, it’s not just military hardware itself that’s a problem. It’s the effect that military weapons, training and procedures have on the mindset of police officers tasked with patrolling their communities.
Instead of seeing citizens as collaborators in stopping—and solving—crimes, the police retrench behind their vehicles, body armor and assault rifles. And yes, they retreat behind their non-lethal weapons, too. Worse, this mindset results in police departments more likely to resort to force than not.
Non-lethal weapons will not going to kill anyone or cause serious injury, most of the time. For this reason, it’s perhaps better to call them less-lethal weapons. And it’s easier to disperse a crowd with a sound cannon or pain ray than by talking to people. This means police are emboldened to use force more often than if they did not possess such weapons.
This is also true for tear gas, flashbang grenades, rubber bullets and sound cannons like the Long-Range Acoustic Device—which emits a painfully high-pitched whine. Police employed all of these weapons in Ferguson.
And this is true for tasers. In a 2011 Department of Justice report, the department noted tasers are “rapidly overtaking other force alternatives” and that “their ease of use and popularity among officers raise the specter of overuse.” Where a police officer might normally begin with verbal commands, escalating to “open-hand” tactics and blunt weapons, the presence of highly-effective tasers becomes an early resort.
Similarly, the proliferation of body-worn military gear and Marine woodland camouflage contributes to the mentality that demonstrators are a problem to resolve with force. The police resemble an occupying army, and begin to act like it. While American troops in Iraq were prepared to use lethal force, as Iraq veteran Phillip Carter wrote in The Daily Beast, soldiers learned to take a different tack with civilians.
“Towards the former,” Carter wrote, “We adopted as friendly a posture we could, often removing our body armor and laying down our weapons in order to share tea or lunch, or doing whatever we could to show trust and build rapport.”
None of this is to say police should disarm themselves. But Trachtenberg misses the point. When we talk about police militarization, we’re also talking about non-lethal weapons. Their widespread use against civilians has perverse effects, just like AR-style rifles and armored bomb trucks do.
At top—Police shoot tear gas in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 17. Loavesofbread/Wikimedia photo