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Friday, October 01, 1999

More Powerful, But Still Less-Lethal by Sgt. Darren Laur

This article was published in the October 1999 issue of Law Enforcement Technology.

More Powerful, But Still Less-Lethal

By Sgt. Darren Laur, former Taser shareholder
Victoria Police Department

The past 30 years have seen significant advancements in the area of less-lethal weapons. Back in the 1960's, there were very few options for law enforcement beyond lethal force. Today, there are many less lethal options and new tools being introduced every year. About a year ago, I undertook a program to evaluate less-lethal weapons for use in the city of Victoria, Canada. After quite a bit of research, I decided to evaluate TASER¨ technology - the less-lethal weapons which shoot out two probes up to a distance of 15 feet, and use an electrical impulse to stun the target. Most people remember TASERs from the Rodney King incident, where the weapon unfortunately did not keep King down.

As I conducted my research, I found that there were many myths about the TASER. In fact, Canadian law had prohibited these less-lethal weapons until recently based upon some of these misconceptions. However, during the course of my department's six month field study, I found TASER technology to be a valuable tool - one which saved several lives during our deployment. Lives which may not have been saved using any other tool currently available. Since I published the results of my department's field test, many law enforcement agencies in Canada are now showing real interest in TASER technology as well.

During the last phase of my research, one of the manufacturers of TASER¨ technology systems - TASER International in Scottsdale, AZ - showed me their next generation weapon system which they have called the "ADVANCED TASER M-26", a less lethal weapon which will be unveiled at the 1999 IACP show in North Carolina. This weapon, the first in a new class of Electro-Muscular Disruption Weapons (EMD), is different from any other less-lethal weapon in one key respect: this system is the only less-lethal weapon I've tested, which will stop a focused, goal oriented attacker. And it's the only one that has stopped me.

One of the challenges facing less-lethal weapons historically, is that they all primarily rely upon a psychological impact to achieve maximum effect. Whether it's the pain from a chemical spray, the impact of a kinetic round, or the stun effect from a TASER, none of the current technology actually debilitates a subject 100% of the time.

To test the hypothesis that these weapons work largely on a psychological basis, I designed a test where I separated two groups of 5 volunteers each in different rooms. One group was shown a video where a person was hit with 5 Watt TASER technology (the same type that are currently in use by law enforcement) and the person fell immediately to the ground. After viewing the video, this group of individuals each volunteered to be hit with the 5 Watt system. Every one of these individuals dropped to the ground just like they had seen the subject in the video do. The second group was also shown a video of a person being hit with a 5 Watt system - except this time the subject was mentally focused and was able to remain standing despite the electrical stimulation. After viewing the video, each person in the group was subjected to the 5 Watt output. Every one of the volunteers was able to stand and function (although they were impaired to differing degrees) despite the fact they were being subjected to the TASER current.

Clearly, this test supports the hypothesis that the effects of the traditional 5 Watt TASER technology are primarily psychological in nature. The stimulation of the electrical output creates a tremendous amount of disturbance in the nervous system (just ask anyone who's tried it!) - enough to cause most people to drop to the ground. However, subjects could be taught to overcome these sensations. Similar tests have been conducted on pepper sprays by well known self-defense expert Phil Messina - who found that focused and goal oriented individuals were able to function and continue attacks despite extreme pain and discomfort.

The result here is not to say that these devices are not useful tools - pepper sprays, CS/CN, TASER technology and other less-lethals have saved thousands of lives over the years. However, the effects of these systems are effectively distraction or pain oriented and rely upon a psychological impact - hence the problems sometime encountered where these less-lethals simply don't seem to affect certain individuals, particularly those under the influence of various narcotics, or those suffering from certain types of emotional and psychological instabilities.

The problem of immediate stopping power does not apply only to less-lethal weapons. At a recent use of force conference in Calgary Alberta Canada , Dr. Alexis Artwohl, who is a police psychologist and the author of a book entitled " Deadly Force Encounters", gave a presentation on the results of FBI analysis of fatal shooting incidents. According to Dr. Artwohl and the FBI, an individual who sustains a fatal shot directly to the heart or aorta may have enough oxygen in the brain and skeletal muscles to continue aggressive behaviour for approximately 14 seconds. Hence, after receiving a fatal gun shot wound, a suspect can return fire or stab an officer for another 14 seconds - enough time to do a lot of damage. If an individual is highly agitated, combative, focused and goal oriented there is only one thing that will reliably stop him immediately: a bullet shot to the central nervous system which will immediately eliminate the command and control of the body. I believe there is now a second method for central nervous system override: the ADVANCED TASER, a new 26 Watt Electro-Muscular Disruption (EMD) Weapon.

I have personally tested the weapon on 10 volunteers in the course of my evaluation, all of whom were chosen from the elite of Canadian law enforcement trainers. The effects were immediate and overwhelming - all subjects were completely incapacitated in less than 1Ú2 second. In fact, when I was hit with the unit, I took a shot to the right leg. My entire body went rigid as the energy pulsed into my leg. Even my arms seemed to be dramatically affected.

I have always personally believed that the only way to reliably stop a deadly force threat immediately, is a shot with a bullet to the central nervous system. Based upon my own personal experiences, I believe the ADVANCED TASER M26 EMD comes extremely close to the same effect, but from a less-lethal perspective.

As with anything, there are trade-offs with the M26. The fact that this is a new technology means that it does not have the benefit of years and years of field use and background data. The medical information behind the M26 supports that it is still well within electrical safety limits. But we are currently working in Canada to obtain further input from medical experts. I also understand that TASER International is conducting further medical studies for publication when the product launches. If these bio-medical studies come back with positive results, as I suspect they will, the ADVANCED TASER M26 should be a less lethal weapon system that all law enforcement agencies should have a definite look at.

The design of the weapon also has positive and negative attributes. The product was designed to function exactly like a firearm - it even looks a like a semi-automatic hand gun. This offers a definite advantage for officers who are trained in firearms: they can use the same muscle motion and memory as they train for their side arms, thereby increasing the reliability and accuracy of the weapon in high stress scenarios. Conversely, there is a risk that the unit could be mistaken for lethal force, causing an unnecessary force escalation. From what I understand, the company will be shipping yellow coloration kits with each unit so that the unit can be brightly coloured to differentiate it from lethal force - similar to the colour schemes used on less-lethal shotguns in many departments. I am waiting to see the final unit to see if this approach will be effective.

More Powerful, But Still Less-Lethal (5 of 5)

Some people may wonder if we truly need that much stopping power in a less-lethal system. But, imagine what would have happened (or actually what would not have happened) had the less-lethal weapon been more effective in the Rodney King scenario. It has been argued that the failure of the TASER¨ to keep King down lead to the over-reaction of the officers on scene. The results cost the city of Los Angeles dearly in every conceivable way. And it tarnished the relationship between law enforcement and communities across North America.

Imagine if the NYPD had been able to subdue Gary Busch with a less-lethal weapon a few weeks ago. Gary Busch was a disturbed person who assaulted officers with a hammer. Officers deployed less-lethals, but Busch did not respond and the officers had no option but to escalate to lethal force. While an assault with a hammer is clearly a deadly force situation, had the less-lethal force been more effective, the whole situation could potentially have been avoided, saving Busch's life and millions of dollars from NYPD's litigation budget which could be productively employed putting more officers on the street.

I am a firm believer that police will always need lethal force options. However, less-lethal force must continue to improve if law enforcement is to effectively meet the challenges of the next century, now only two months away. We've come a long way in the last 30 years. It will be interesting to see where we are 30 years from now.

Darren Laur is the Control Tactics Co-ordinator for the Victoria Police Department in Canada. Sgt. Laur is an active duty law enforcement officer and expert in less-lethal weapons. To contact the author, email: personalprotection@shaw.ca