Friday, February 3, 2012

Less-Than-Lethal: The Evolution of Crowd Control

With today's world becoming ever more dependent on technology, the arms race between crook and cop continues to rage on.  With officers looking for new ways to incapacitate individuals without having to resort to lethal force, many private companies have jumped at the opportunity to design the next new gadget.  While police officers back in the early 20th century had to resort to using a club or high-pressure hoses for non-lethal incapacitation, modern officers now have a large array of items which provide incapacitation at increased ranges and without the same damaging effects of clubbing a suspect.
       Tear gas was the first major advancement for crowd control and forced-compliance making its first appearance in US law enforcement and military in 1915.  While tear gas agitates the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, and throat and is typically fired in canisters into large groups of people to disperse riots, police needed something more portable and not as easily avoidable while trying to subdue hostile offenders.  This led to the emergence of pepper spray or Mace which made its widespread debut in US law enforcement during the early 90's.  At the time, pepper spray was seen as the perfect less-than-lethal alternative to traditional crowd control techniques due to its increased range and physical incapacitation effects.
       In 1998, when comparing the effects of tear gas versus mace, the European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) published an analysis of pepper spray as a crowd control tool in which they described mace's effects as being "far more severe [than tear gas], including temporary blindness which lasts from 15–30 minutes, a burning sensation of the skin which lasts from 45 to 60 minutes, upper body spasms which force a person to bend forward and uncontrollable coughing making it difficult to breathe or speak for between 3 to 15 minutes."  While these techniques were considered humane enough to use and even applauded for their effectiveness, critics of mace say that even though the effects seem harmless after a while, there have been certain cases where mace may have contributed to the deaths of police suspects.
       While a large majority of the population would experience only temporary effects, some people with sensitive eyes may experience permanent blindness (to an extent) while people with asthma may experience additional agitation of their airways which may lead to death in rare cases.  This potential for accidental death from pepper spray combined with the possibility that a suspect may develop a resistance to the spray and shake off the effects caused police and crowd-control product manufacturers to look at new possibilities.  While some stuck to the same theme of pepper spray by creating paint ball like capsules that are filled with pepper powder which allows for increased range and the ability to create the same spray effect by hitting objects around the suspect, the next breakthroughs in non-lethal restraint also came with a projectile delivery system.
       Pepper spray had its uses, special ammunition and grenades were developed in order to greatly increase the range of effectiveness while remaining less lethal than their deadly military counterparts.  For example, while special stun or flash grenades have been used by the military for special hostage missions since the 70's, a civilian version was adapted and is still used today in hostage situations where the few seconds that the criminals are blinded/deafened by the blast can provide just enough time to save lives.  While flash and stun grenades are more common, there has recently been a special grenade used a lot in prisons called a "sting ball" which, upon detonation, launches hundreds of tiny rubber balls in all directions which causes it to be the most effective indoors due to the possibility of ricochet.
       As for special ammunition, police have been using various kinds of less-lethal ammunition for decades.  One of the oldest forms of "non-lethal" ammo was putting rock salt in shotgun shells so that when someone was shot with it or was hit with ricochet, it merely stung as if you got hit with a bb gun, but the salt would temporarily incapacitate people with the pain of having salt in their wounds.  Other forms of "non-lethal" ammunition include rubber bullets, wax bullets, plastic bullets, or even bean bags launched out of a grenade launcher.
       Although a lot has been covered in this blog post so far, one could not discuss crowd control without mentioning the most popular and controversial method to date; the taser.  We have all seen the YouTube videos of police officers using force in this new age of information, namely the incident which occurred at the University of Florida in which the popular phrase "Don't tase me Bro!" was coined.  The Police Issue X26 Taser ( ) has the ability to not only shoot barbed prongs which conducts electricity to interrupt the target's brain's control of motor functions up to 35 ft, but the controversial setting is called the "drive stun" setting in which the taser is pressed directly to the skin to deliver a large, painful shock as seen in the popular YouTube video which I will include at the end of this post.  While tasers are proven to be very effective, there are questions about whether or not it has played a large role in non-lethal force deaths of suspects.  As a final and interesting note in this section, there have been prototypes developed in which a modified shotgun shell, which can fit into any standard 12-gauge shotgun, can incapacitate a suspect from around 100ft.  This projectile is called XREP (eXtended Range Electro-Muscular Projectile) which is manufactured by Taser International and has been featured in shows such as Future Weapons.


  1. I really like how you went through the history of the different types of crowd control. I would have assumed that the tear gas would be more harmful than mace. I was surprised by that actually. If i had to get hit by any of the things listed above, i'd probably choose the rubber bullets or sting balls actually. The video at the end was a nice touch too.

  2. In response to the post by Bryan Mcguire, i would like to say that i really enjoyed reading this post. One reason in particular is the history that you listed regarding police and less lethal measures when trying to subdue a suspect. Another reason I enjoyed this is because of the last part of the section when you discussed tasers. This sticks out to me because I can relate to actually being tased before. Let me be the one to say that once you are tased you receive an intense electrical shock that paralyzes you for about 1-4mins depending to the level of shock-age.

    Now as for my responses when it comes to police using this instrument, this is a proper method for subduing suspects. If you are trying not to kill the suspect then this is surely the way to go because you don't pose serious injury to the suspect. Once given the electrical shock they will have no other choice but agree to the arrest. As for the video, the police may have been a little extreme in this situation as the tasing was completely unnecessary. This is the only times where police discretion is not common sense.