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John W. Whitehead Headshot

Compliance Weapons: One Step Closer to a Police State?

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"Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation."-- George Orwell, 1984

Compliance weapons, also known as non-lethal or non-deadly weapons, have become the rage in law enforcement. On paper, these weapons seem like a welcome alternative to bloodshed, especially if it means protecting law enforcement officials from dangerous criminals and minimizing civilian casualties.

Yet as we have seen with tasers, the dangers posed, especially to defenseless non-criminals, cannot be lightly dismissed. And as technology makes possible the widespread availability and acceptance of these weapons, one also has to wonder about their impact on police practices and the exercise of civil liberties.

Tasers, for example, are designed to cause instant incapacitation by delivering a 50,000-volt shock. Currently used by roughly 12,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., tasers have been hailed by law enforcement officials for their effectiveness in subduing targets. However, concerns about their misuse are growing. For example, Amnesty International reports that in instances where these hand-held electronic stun guns are used, 80% of the time they are used on unarmed suspects. In 36% of the cases, they are used for verbal non-compliance, but only 3% of the time for cases involving "deadly assault."

Another non-lethal weapon with the potential to do untold damage is the "LED Incapacitator" (LEDI). LEDIs will soon be in the hands of thousands of policemen, border agents and National Guardsmen. Designed like a flashlight, this light saber (also dubbed a barf beamer and a puke saber) is intended to totally incapacitate its targets by emitting multiple light frequencies and colors that confuse the brain, resulting in symptoms ranging from discomfort and disorientation to temporary blindness and nausea.

It has been suggested that LEDIs be installed in prisons so that riots can be stopped with the flip of a switch. Police vehicles with large versions mounted on top for riot control have also been proposed. But if LEDIs can be so easily employed on a mass scale and mounted on buildings, there is little that would stop police from dispersing even a mildly rowdy, but legal, political protest and shutting down entire city blocks with virtually no resistance.

Devices such as LEDIs facilitate a non-dramatic, palatable use of force. Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security has praised the LEDI device for its potential to peacefully apprehend boarder jumpers, resistant suspects and control riotous crowds. (Homeland Security has also expressed interest in yet another non-lethal weapon in the form of security bracelets, aka "taser bracelets," which could be used to control crowds, quell protesters and inflict pain compliance on suspects from a distance.)

But there is a serious problem with "non-lethal, non-deadly" weapons: how they are used -- or abused -- largely depends on the individuals and agencies operating them. For example, many police forces around the world unabashedly use tasers as compliance weapons rather than as alternatives to deadly force. In these countries, tasers are more often used against passive resisters and stubborn individuals, while more deadly force is reserved for armed offenders. Consequently, abuses are on the rise and opposition to tasers is mounting worldwide, especially given the sharp increase in sudden deaths accompanying use of the stun guns. In fact, in late 2007, the United Nations Committee Against Torture declared that the use of tasers constituted a form of torture.

Also, we know very little about these non-lethal weapons. For instance, despite assurances from Homeland Security that LEDIs cannot do any real damage, the research is still out on the long-term effects of many of these non-lethal weapons. As with tasers, which have resulted in nearly 300 deaths over the past few years, LEDIs might cause greater than expected damage to individuals who are especially susceptible to their effects.

Moreover, non-lethal weapons such as LEDIs may not reduce the number of shootings by police. In Houston, Texas, for example, the introduction and routine use of tasers did not reduce the number of people shot, killed or wounded by the police. Nevertheless, while the use of non-lethal weapons such as tasers and LEDIs may not necessarily reduce the number of civilian casualties, they have been largely accepted as the humane alternative to deadly force because they make the use of force appear far less dramatic and violent than it has in the past.

Contrast, for instance, the image of police officers beating Rodney King with billy clubs as opposed to police officers continually shocking a person with a taser. Both are severe forms of abuse. However, because the act of pushing a button is far less dramatic and visually arresting than swinging a billy club, it can come across as much more humane to the general public.

Without citizen awareness and outrage, a major check on the abuse of police power is lost. As we have seen with the use of tasers, this empowers law enforcement officials to resort to non-lethal weapons in situations where previously no force would have been used at all, such as routine traffic stops or peaceful protests. And as force becomes easier and more common, with police neutralizing masses of people for the slightest disturbance and only facing relatively minor repercussions, constitutionally protected protests will be rendered useless.

There are also totalitarian ramifications to be considered. Governmental coercion is largely restrained by the fact that people will resist governmental violence that crosses a certain threshold. But when the threshold is subtle and justified under the rubric of being more humane or combating terrorism (as in requiring airline passengers to wear taser bracelets), it becomes more difficult to find the outrage necessary to oppose it.

Lest we forget, government domination is not usually accomplished by methods so dramatic that they spark a backlash from citizens. Thus, the real threat to freedom posed by such non-lethal weapons is a governmental system of coercion so well designed that it does not breed revolt.