Non-Lethal Law Enforcement Weapons

The subject of non-lethal law enforcement weapons gained importance in the 60s. At the time, the most mature weapon technology was irritant chemicals. The other weapons used were water cannons and truncheons (or batons). Chemical irritants gained popularity with police force worldwide, following its relative success in the World War I. The characteristic effects of these chemicals are severe sensory irritation, coupled with intense sensory pain in the respiratory tract and the eyes.

Nevertheless, these effects are not permanent, causing temporary incapacitation. The primary chemical used was chloroacetophenone, CN, but it was replaced in military use by the more potent CS (cholorobenzalmalononitrile), named for a couple of US chemists known as Corson and Stoughton. CN remained the standard agent for police work. Further developments led to the design of handheld projectors of liquid irritants. This 1965 discovery went under the title of ‘Chemical Mace’.

It was regarded as the most vital development in law enforcement weaponry since the handgun. The push for non lethal law enforcement weapons was primarily driven by the need to quell riots without causing injury; the cases of focus at the time were the riots in Detroit and Newark in the summer of ’67, following gross racial inequity in the United States. The Omnibus Crime Control and Sage Streets Act was passed by the US Congress the following year and it detailed recommendations on the use and control of alternatives to lethal weapons (Neil Davison, 2006).

Soon after, research began on developing impact projectiles based on kinetic energy. They were designed to replace the lethal impact of bullets. These new systems for example ‘bean-bag’, rubber and wooden projectiles suffered from inefficient testing before their introduction. Cylindrical teak, inch-long bullets are on the earliest examples of this class of weaponry. They had to be fired off solid ground (skip-fired) and aimed at the legs as direct fire had the capacity of causing broken bones or even death.

That said, unpredictable ricochets could cause injury to anybody in the vicinity. The rubber bullet, with properties of 15cm length, 3. 5cm diameter and a 140g weight was developed in the United Kingdom in the late 60s. It had similar failures to the wooden pellets, leading to the manufacture of the lighter, shorter, more accurate plastic bullet in 1972. Although it was designed for direct fire unlike the wooden and rubber bullets, it was more dangerous when used in short range combat.

Other developments at the time were the bean bag variants (canvas pouches packed with lead shot) and the RAG (Rig Airfoil Projectile), though the latter was never used (Neil Davison, 2006). Electrical –shock law enforcement weapons emerged at around the same time. Their origin stemmed from devices employed in torture operation as well as those used in controlling livestock (that is, ‘stock prods’ or ‘cattle prods’). In the 1930s, Argentinean police used cattle prods as torture devices during interrogations.

Low amperage, flexibility and portability were the selling points of this technology. Their designs were refined in the 60s and 70s period. Other contemporary advantages are rapid incapacitation, dose controllability, predictability of physiological effects and a wide scale of incapacitation. This development was in line with the push for equipment that would enhance policing tasks, bearing negligible reference to military-style application, most notably riot control.

Few patented electrical weapons have come into effective operation, save for the Taser, a John Cover invention patented in the year 1974. It addressed the recommendations proposed by the Presidential Crime Commission in its incorporation of low amperage, high voltage pulsed electric currents. Another noteworthy electrical weapon is Wall’s concept detailing the application of two jets of water carrying opposing charges in a bid to convey electrical charges to victims (Neil Davison, 2006).