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Justice Lab

Happiness is a Warm Phaser

The search for the truly nonlethal weapon.

In the new cop drama, “APB” (Monday nights on Fox), an Elon Musk-type billionaire engineer buys a beleaguered Chicago police precinct to avenge his buddy’s murder. He re-outfits the station with wizardry including drones, a biometric interrogation chair and Tasers that instantly (and nonlethally) stop bad guys with the range and accuracy of a gun.

We’ll leave it to the lawyers to argue whether or not a civilian could buy a precinct. As for the tech stuff, especially the pimped-out Taser, the question is timely: Given the recent high-profile fatal police shootings of civilians — roughly 1,000 a year — it makes sense that law enforcement officials and victim advocates alike are on a continuing search for a device that can neutralize a threat without causing permanent harm.

This story was produced in collaboration with Wired.

“It’s shout or shoot. There aren’t a lot of intermediate options,” says Sid Heal, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department commander who consults internationally on the use of force. And since most police department protocols allow officers to respond to threats by using a higher level of force than they’re confronting, an officer who faces off against a foe carrying a deadly weapon— which could be a hammer or baseball bat — is almost certainly going to respond with the service revolver.

For 800 years, the only effective way to stop an adversary has been gun, set to kill. But the quest for a nonlethal alternative has never been more urgent.

Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle

What, then, about the Taser? Isn’t that the solution — a weapon that can shock a subject into submission, leaving no lasting harm?

That’s the idea in theory, and since Taser International first introduced its model in 1993, the device has become a mainstay in almost every police department. But theory and practice are two different things. Tasers are both less effective than guns at stopping someone charging at you and no guarantee of leaving them unscathed.

Named for the 1911 youth book “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” Tasers work by shooting two electrically charged probes — one negative, one positive — delivering a 5 to 30 second shock of 50,000 volts, although the voltage drops dramatically upon impact. Both probes have to make close contact with the skin to work. Yet sometimes they don’t: Heavy clothing can repel them, and the further the distance from which they are shot, the wider the space, or spread, between the two probes.

“The spread is one foot for every seven feet they travel. If I deploy it at you at 14 feet, the spread is going to be 2 feet,” says Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle, acknowledging, “It’s not a magic bullet.”

But, he adds confidently, “It stops a threat,” and far more effectively than other less-lethal options such as batons, pepper spray or disorienting flashing devices. (Taser International virtually owns the market, though a handful of competitors have introduced similar stun devices. It won a patent infringement lawsuit against one of them, Karbon Arms, in 2014. Karbon Arms website has since shut down and its Facebook page says "closed for business.")

While Tasers are clearly less lethal than conventional guns, the jury is out over whether or not they can shock a person to death. A Washington Post investigation of police killings in 2015 found approximately one death a week related to police use of Tasers, but they could not be definitively attributed to shock. Some subjects may have fallen and hit their heads after being shocked.

As for range, in 2009 Taser introduced the XREP extended range shotgun which could reach up to 100 feet. But with only limited situations of practical usefulness and rounds costing $125 each, Tuttle says, “It was too expensive. We pulled it.”

Tuttle notes FBI statistics show that most officers fire their guns from 7 to 10 feet away, well within a Taser’s reach. Still, some officers won’t trust a Taser except up close.

On TV, the range problem is solved by simply writing it into the script. In APB’s pilot episode, a detective is directed by the precinct’s new owner to shoot at a woman being held hostage by a perp with a gun to her head.

“The Taser won’t kill her but he will,” the rich boss whispers. The detective takes the shot and the woman falls, stunned but unharmed. Then the detective shoots again and immobilizes the bad guy.

How that scenario would play out in the real world, who knows? Sgt. Det. John Folino, the show’s technical adviser and a 19-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, discusses practical concerns more than ethics.

“Right now, you have officers with dual weapons (a gun and a Taser). You can only have so much on your duty belt,” impeding mobility and causing back pain, he says.

Like Star Trek’s phasers, the fictional weapons on Fox’s APB have stun and kill settings — which could also cause problems.

“Say I just had an encounter with somebody threatening suicide where you have the less-lethal option. Now I go on the next job and I have someone shooting at me. Will you remember to switch the mode?”

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That’s a real-world question tragically answered last year when Tulsa reserve deputy Robert Bates said he got confused and drew his gun instead of his Taser, killing Eric Harris, the unarmed subject of a sting operation. Bates was sentenced to four years for manslaughter.

“That's the reason when we train, we put the Taser on the opposite side,” says Folino. “It’s called your support side. Your actual weapon is on your strong side.”

Directed energy: Feeling the burn

So what else is out there? The next closest thing to the elusive phaser on stun may be a directed energy system developed by Raytheon that fires waves of energy that penetrate a paper-thin layer of the skin, producing an intolerable burning sensation. But it’s hardly handheld and has to be mounted on a flatbed trailer. Initially designed for the military, it was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 before being recalled by the Air Force, reportedly due to concerns about Geneva Convention violations.

Raytheon did not return calls for comment. A model for law enforcement use — mostly for crowd control — was tested at Los Angeles’ North County Correctional Facility in 2010. Heal, the retired L.A. sheriff’s commander, was a consultant on that contract.

“We put it on the top of the jail where we just had two murders. And the ACLU objected,” he complains, with a tone of exasperation.“Why don't we just use the stuff we've been using since 1820, like billy clubs and night sticks?”

The ACLU referred me to Physicians for Human Rights.

“Our prevailing concerns about weapons – either real or hypothetical – is both the danger they pose and their potential for being used to violate people’s rights,” writes Dr. Rohini J. Haar, an emergency medicine physician with the group, claiming the beam’s effects haven’t been fully studied.

“Certainly an alternative to live ammunition can be warranted, but the problem here is that [less-lethal weapons] are often deployed without a full understanding of their potential health effects. ...There is no such thing as a perfect weapon, and weapons designed to be non-lethal can end up having lethal effects or infringe on people’s rights to speak out and assemble.”

Robert Afzal of Aculight Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed in Bothell, Wash., is developing high-powered lasers to shoot down missiles. A bit of a Trekkie, he poses with a movie prop in a Smithsonian documentary that likens his laser to a phaser, the logic being that both are beam weapons.

But like Raytheon’s, his has to be mounted on a large vehicle. It also uses intense heat to shoot down missiles, not repel humans.

“The phaser as stun gun or Taser is still in the realm of good science fiction,” Afzal says. “We would need significant advances in technology, including batteries, to create a useful handheld laser gun.”

Size, then, still matters, and the technology to pack all that energy in a holster-ready device simply isn’t here yet. Also, the various shocking and heat weapons currently available or in development follow a basic paradigm: Those that send impulses instantaneously via a beam burn their subjects rather than shock them; those that shock, like the tethered Taser probes, don’t use beams.

So is a true phaser anywhere on the horizon? APB's only doing so-so in the ratings, so it's unlikely to spark the imagination of weapons developers. But the best device may have been conceived more than 300 years ago. In “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s Prospero declares:

“I can here disarm thee with this stick.
And make thy weapon drop.”

His power was simply magic.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied that police departments began using Tasers in 1993, when Taser International introduced its popular model. Similar devices made by other companies already had been in use for many years.