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Lasers as less-lethal weapons?

Most people won’t attack what they can’t see

The ‘Occupy’ protests which began in late 2011 (and continue even now) have a challenge on multiple levels for police forces in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. One of the mantras of the demonstrators was that they were peaceful and nonviolent — although their actions at times indicated otherwise — so that any use of force by the police was disproportionate and therefore morally reprehensible. Those of you reading this who know something about the dynamics of the use of force understand that it doesn’t work that way, but it still puts the police on the defensive to explain and justify their tactics.

Traditional less-lethal crowd control measures have been demonized as barbaric. Pepper spray, in particular, has taken a beating. The public has unreasonable expectations of police tactics in public order situations, demanding measures that are pain-free, risk-free, and yet effective in removing people from places they are not allowed to be. Are there any technologies that can meet these challenges?

One possibility that hasn’t been tried on a large scale as yet lies with laser-based “dazzler” devices. Ranging from the size of a flashlight to models as big as a deck gun, these devices emit a beam of light that has to be experienced to be appreciated. I saw one at a trade show some years back, and had trouble just standing upright when it was shone into my eyes for only a second or two. They don’t just temporarily blind the targeted person—the laser light appears to move in a complex pattern that is profoundly disorienting. Many people experience nausea that persists for several minutes after the light is shut off or directed elsewhere.

Police can use the Dazer Laser to distract suspects while other officers move in on a crime scene. (Image Courtesy of Laser Energetics)
Police can use the Dazer Laser to distract suspects while other officers move in on a crime scene. (Image Courtesy of Laser Energetics)

A U.S. company called Laser Energetics has been selling two “Dazer Laser” products for some time. These are handheld devices that blind and disorient individuals from up to 2,400 meters away (300 meters for the smaller “Guardian” model) so that arrest team officers can move in and subdue them physically. It’s important to note that the effect of these laser devices isn’t to blind individuals in the way a laser pointer shone into someone’s eyes would. The light causes no damage to the eyes. Laser Energetics has available on their website a report from a medical provider that examined ten test subjects after they had been exposed to the Dazer Laser for three intervals of ten seconds each. There was no damage to the eyes of any of the test subjects.

BAE Systems — parent company of Safariland and a major defense contractor — is developing a larger-scale laser device that works on a similar principle, but in this case for use on ships to fend off pirate attacks. Merchant ships operating off the coast of Africa are regularly attacked and occasionally boarded and captured by pirates, who then hold the ships and crews for ransom. Most merchant vessels are prohibited from carrying conventional weapons to repel these attacks, and have had to rely on sound cannons, water jets, and usually just trying to outrun the pirates when they can’t get military assistance.

Both the BAE Systems and Laser Energetics devices have safeguards to keep the lasers from being used by the bad guys if they are captured. Laser Energetics uses a security code that will enable the device for only 12 or 24 hours before it resets, and the operator can reset a device at any time, disabling it until the security code is entered again. BAE Systems isn’t saying what measures it uses.

A laser weapon of this type could be a superior crowd control device. People aren’t usually motivated to continue their activities if they can’t see, and that goes triple if they feel like they’re about to blow chunks. Without doubt, the deployment of a device like this against an ‘Occupy’ or similar crowd will be condemned as inhumane, and someone will claim they were struck permanently blind, suffered an aneurysm, or possibly turned to stone.

It’s got to be better than pepper spray, though. I’ve experienced that, and it truly sucks.

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