Rumors started flying in the Internet blogs a few weeks before last year's G20 economic summit in Pittsburgh. The police had some new toys that would ensure that Pittsburgh did not become another Seattle. Anarchists and agitators cringed as they read about heat rays, sonic disruptors, mass TASERs, malodorants, and other new riot control technologies that would supposedly make their debut during the economic summit.
And maybe that's why somebody spread those rumors, perhaps even somebody in law enforcement.
But once the demonstrators hit the streets and the Black Bloc anarchists donned their bandannas, Pittsburgh Police responded with very conventional tools like "hats and bats," OC, and less-lethal impact rounds. There were no heat rays or other science fiction weapons.
Experts say these weapons are potentially viable as riot control tools, but there are still a wide variety of issues that have to be resolved before they become the bane of the Black Bloc.
The heat ray has long been a fixture in science fiction. In those stories, it can melt buildings. Currently, the world's first working heat ray is really more of an annoyance than a futuristic weapon of mass destruction.
Developed by Raytheon, the heat ray is officially known as the Active Denial System (ADS). The weapon uses millimeter wave energy to generate a heat beam that causes a burning sensation on the skin of the target without inflicting permanent damage. Once the person targeted steps out of the beam, the pain stops. It's designed to prevent unauthorized personnel from entering sensitive military areas and has been deployed in Afghanistan to mixed results.
The military version of the heat ray is so large that it has to be carried on a HumVee or truck. Law enforcement is looking to field smaller versions with less power and less effective range.
But for a while it's unlikely that law enforcement heat rays will be viable riot control tools. The systems are just too large and the public is just not comfortable with the idea.
The first use of Raytheon's technology by law enforcement will likely be in a corrections environment. In August, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department announced that it was planning to install Raytheon's new Assault Intervention Device in its Pitchess Detention Center. The National Institute of Justice owns the equipment and has put those plans on hold while it studies the capabilities and effects of the device.
LASD's heat ray is much smaller and much less powerful than the military version, but it's still eight feet tall and weighs 600 pounds. It's so large that it has to be mounted on a gimbal system so that an operator can aim it.
Commander Bob Osborne of LASD's Technology Exploration System believes the system may be very effective in preventing or at least limiting some inmate on inmate violence at the notorious Pitchess Center, but he thinks it's not yet ready for street riot control.
"It's just too big and unwieldy," Osborne explains. "But the science may be viable. If there was a device that was much smaller, that was portable, that didn't require as much power, that was solid state, and that could withstand the rigors of being hand carried, then I can imagine that device having riot control applications."
Osborne believes the real delay in fielding such technology won't be in developing the tool but in getting people to accept it. "Public opinion and acceptance tend to lag behind technology for police," he says.