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.[PAGEBREAK]
The Sonic Laser
One of the biggest problems faced by riot control officers is actually finding a way to communicate with people over the din of the demonstration. Vahan Simidian believes he has the solution to that problem.
Simidian is CEO of HPV Technologies and developer of the Magnetic Acoustic Device (MAD), a planar speaker system that can be used to communicate distortion free at a range of more than a mile. A MAD system projects sound in a very tight coherent beam much the same way a laser projects coherent light, meaning that it can send sound farther down range with less power. Police using this device can tell a crowd to disperse in a normal speaking voice and be heard over even the loudest demonstrators.
"It's not about loudness; it's about clarity," says Simidian. "We don't have to produce enormous sound levels to get the sound to go a long, long way."
Currently, HPV's products are in use with a number of law enforcement agencies nationwide for crowd notification. But could it be used as a less-lethal weapon to force a crowd to disperse?
Simidian doesn't like the term "weapon," but certain irritating and annoying sounds sent through his system can cause pain and other forms of discomfort. And because they are not as loud as some other sonic devices, Simidian says his MAD systems won't cause hearing damage. "We could hurt you if we wanted to," Simidian says, "but we don't want to."
MAD systems are currently available in a wide variety of configurations. Some are so small that they are officer portable. Others can be fitted on bicycles and some are so large that they need to be fitted on trucks. Simidian is also working on a handheld MAD device that will incapacitate subjects with no permanent damage.
Crowd Control TASERs
Electronic Control Devices currently play a major role in riot control worldwide. Officers have used TASERs to incapacitate individual agitators and effect arrests of unruly anarchists for years now. And recently, TASER International developed two more products that may eventually find their way into the arsenal of riot control teams.
TASER's Shockwave is an area denial device that was inspired by anti-personnel mines. The Shockwave ADS consists of three tiers of six TASER cartridges. It works like this: The operator uses an activator system that is hard-wired into the Shockwave. If he pushes the trigger once, the first row of six cartridges fires and the rioters get a 30-second ride. A second time, and the second row fires and a charge is sent back into the probes that are now sticking into the bad guys. A third time, and the third row and the first and second sets of probes go active again. Finally, there's an option for firing all three rows—18 cartridges—at once and incapacitating the target with a hail of probes.
TASER spokesperson Steve Tuttle says the Shockwave has not yet been used in a riot control operation. But it has been successfully fielded by a SWAT team during a barricade situation.
Tuttle believes the indiscriminate nature of the Shockwave may prevent it from being suitable for crowd control situations, but he does see one specific use for the device during a riot. "If there's a protest and there's an area you don't want touched such as a business area, you could use Shockwave to prevent the protesters from entering that area," he says.
Another new TASER product was designed specifically for riot control situations, the eXtended Range Electronic Projectile (XREP).
Fired from a dedicated 12-gauge shotgun, XREP is essentially an electric impact round. The XREP has a maximum range of 65 feet and weighs about 14 grams. It doesn't hit very hard as an impact round, but it hits real hard as a TASER. The neuro-muscular incapacitation effect lasts 20 seconds, four times as long as a TASER X26.
So far the XREP has not been used in a crowd control situation, but that's likely to change as more agencies acquire the technology.[PAGEBREAK]
One of the most exotic of all future crowd control technologies is the malodorant. The Israelis have actually developed a compound they call Skunk that smells so bad that it's incapacitating.
Skunk is an organic compound that its inventor says is safe to drink. But few people would want to drink it. The stuff reportedly smells like a combination of an open sewer and rotted meat. It can be sprayed out of a water cannon or shot in a paintball round, and the smell lasts for days no matter how hard the person scrubs.
LASD's Osborne believes malodorants such as Skunk may have a place in future riot control arsenals. "If the purpose is to disperse people, then anything that causes people to want to get away is a good thing," he says.
Osborne also thinks a dose of Skunk applied to some agitators might make it easier for a peaceful demonstration to stay peaceful. "If you made the agitators smell bad enough to gag you, that would be a fairly effective way to allow the legal and peaceful protestors to do what they do without exposing them to negative consequences."
A Softer Approach
Despite the cool factor of such things as heat rays and malodorants, riot control experts are skeptical that they will be fielded by law enforcement any time soon.
Elliott Grollman, a POLICE-TREXPO advisor and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Northern Virginia Community College, says that most law enforcement agencies are using a softer approach to crowd control because of fears of liability.
And when it comes to riot control technology, Grollman likes proven tools like PepperBall guns, FN303 launchers, and OC spray. "I really like OC," says the veteran of many Washington, D.C.-area demonstration details. "OC can be used localized, and it is a very effective tool."
LASD's Osborne also warns agencies not to get seduced by high technology without considering all of the possible repercussions of fielding that technology. "Sometimes in the heat of battle, we just don't think what's going to happen next and that's something we have to think about with these things," Osborne cautions. "None of these things are perfect."
What riot control technologies are you most looking forward to law enforcement using? Sound off in the comments below.