Fifty years ago, guards fired shotguns loaded with sawed-off broom handles to control threatening inmates.
Then came wooden and rubber bullets as a means to keep inmates under control without killing those on the receiving end. Stun guns emerged from another evolutionary line, with the Taser most popular among police officers and jailers.
Law enforcement has classified these methods as “less-than-lethal.” Critics, including a number of medical examiners, have argued the label is inaccurate.
A little more than a week ago, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department created the latest flash point in the long-running argument over these weapons with a relatively new piece of technology: literally, a ray gun.
As the LASD said in its press release:
The device, dubbed the Assault Intervention Device (AID), transmits a focused, invisible millimeter wave at the suspect which causes an intolerable heating sensation. The suspect can simply move away from the beam to stop the sensation. The beam is directed toward its target by a deputy using a standard joystick and computer monitor.
The idea is to allow deputies to break up an inmate melee without putting themselves at physical risk. The ray gun deployment is part of a six-month test at the Pitchess Detention Center's North County Correctional Facility.
However, Wired magazine’s “Danger Zone” blog reports the effort is also “partially an answer to the 257 inmate-on-inmate assaults at Pitchess so far this year, and the 19 additional assaults on deputies.”
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote to Sheriff Lee Baca pleading that the department not use the ray gun – and threatening litigation if it does.
“We strongly oppose the view that it is ever appropriate to deploy against the detainees of a county jail or any other incarcerated population a military weapon intended to cause intolerable pain and capable of causing severe injury or death,” wrote ACLU officials Peter Eliasberg and Margaret Winter.
A more powerful version of the ray gun, originally developed by Raytheon Co. for the military, has caused some serious injuries.
LASD Commander Charles Heal, an expert in less-than-lethal weaponry, has repeatedly argued that technology like the ray gun must be researched and used in prisons.
“Law enforcement is not allowed to flee, which means we must engage in risk reduction which includes diminishing the odds (the responsibility of the developer of the weapon) and exposure reduction (the responsibility of law enforcement),” Heal said in May 2006 at the Taser Master Instructor Program, as quoted by Police and Security News [PDF].
But should any weapon be considered “less-than-lethal”?
Pillows are sometimes murder weapons.
Shoelaces provide inmates a means of killing themselves. And as of 2003, the most recent data available, suicide was the second leading manner of in-custody deaths in California [PDF], listed in 13 percent of deaths.