The LASD began testing MAD last year with special-operations commandos, who used it during training sessions to speak with hostage-takers. Heal won´t say when the LASD might permanently adopt the device, but he looks forward to using it for crowd control. "I can´t wait for a way to talk to someone out of thin air," he says.
Yet for every gadget that pans out, dozens never reach the supply room. Most of them prove to be prohibitively expensive, impractical or unreliable;
the LASD has adopted just 35 of the hundreds of
technologies that Heal has investigated. Take James Tatoian´s microwave emitter, for instance. A mathematician and the CEO of Eureka Aerospace in Pasadena, California, Tatoian has developed a powerful 250-megahertz microwave beam that can stall the engine of a car from a distance of 35 feet, a device that would no doubt come in handy in L.A., the car-chase capital of the world. Heal recognizes the system´s value but points out the inadvertent threat it could pose to such equipment as traffic signals, cellphones and pacemakers. (Tatoian has already fried his garage-door opener and often crashes the computers in his workshop.) It will take Tatoian at least another year to whip his prototype into LASD shape. Heal must then sell the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a bureaucratic gauntlet that can take as long as a year, depending on the cost and complexity of the device.
Better Than Bullets
Magnetic bullhorns and spy drones may make police work easier, but nonlethal weaponry offers the most dramatic promise. Over the years, Heal has lost count of his personal injuries but recalls one year in which he was admitted to the hospital on eight occasions. In his career with the LASD, 42 deputies have been killed in the line of duty and he´s personally witnessed the shootings of several assailants at the hands of deputies.
Heal believes that to avoid shootings, law-enforcement agencies must broaden what they call the "use-of-force continuum," which begins with verbal warnings and ends with a pull of the trigger. Nonlethal weapons such as foul-smelling chemicals and temporary pain rays offer other options.
But is that enough? Merrick Bobb, founder of the Police Assessment Resource Center, an organization that documents police abuses, agrees that there needs to be more-humane options but doesn´t imagine that an improved utility belt will fundamentally alter the equation. "I don´t use the term "nonlethal,´ " he says. " "Less than lethal´ is more apt. These new instruments can still cause serious damage." In 2004, Boston police fired pepper pellets at a rowdy crowd following a Red Sox victory and killed one woman when a pellet struck her in the eye. And last November, a UCLA officer used a Taser to repeatedly stun an unarmed student for refusing to vacate the school library. "Any tool is vulnerable to abuse," Bobb says. "The key is adequate training."
Yet the recent shootings of unarmed suspects-perhaps most notably the death of Sean Bell, shot outside his bachelor party in New York City last November-point to the need for an alternative to live ammunition. And sometimes the right gear really does make the difference.
In 2002 Heal handed LASD sergeant Scott Walker his first Taser. A few days later, Walker was deployed to arrest a mentally unstable man who had led deputies on a wild car chase and then barricaded himself inside his vehicle. "We spent two hours trying to talk him out," Walker says. When the man finally exited his car, he ignored commands to drop his knife, seemingly intent on provoking the deputies into killing him. Deputies first tried to stop him with rubber bullets, but he kept on, and even fought off a police dog. As deputies prepared to shoot, Walker fired the Taser at him. The man collapsed, helpless but alive. "The Taser was the tie-breaker that saved his life," says Walker. "His brother actually thanked us, which is something we don´t normally hear."
Reinhard Kargl is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.single page
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