It was a decision that was bound to attract its fair share of controversy. In 2010, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department held a press conference to announce plans to start using a new nonlethal weapon that shoots an invisible energy beam. The weapon uses extremely short radio waves - called millimeter waves - to heat the top layer of skin, which causes an intense burning sensation.
The device, which was developed over a decade ago as part of a once-classified military project, causes searing pain, but no actual physical damage to its human targets. The police there planned to use it in one of their jails to help control inmates, particularly in case of fights.
“We were interested in that because, it’s almost like, if it worked, it would be the holy grail for police: a device that might provide pain compliance [for prisoners] without hurting them,” says Commander Robert Osborne. “Everything else that causes pain actually hurts them.”
Indeed, it seemed like the perfect weapon: unlike a Taser, which has a limited range and can only be used against one person at a time, this was more like a science fiction phaser, shooting out a beam that could strike and repel multiple people quickly and from relatively great distances.
The press conference attracted a slew of national, and even international interest, as well as a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union. “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,” the organization wrote to the sheriff, citing a case where the military version of the weapon accidentally injured people during testing.
Osborne expected the objections, but he says that he believed that the more people knew about the technology, the more supportive they would be of it. The press conference, recalls Osborne, was a way of blunting potential criticism.
“We didn’t want to begin using a device like that in any kind of a clandestine way,” he says.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Several days after the press conference, the National Institute of Justice, a US government agency that had supplied the weapon, called Osborne and asked him to hold off using it, citing questions from the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates radio frequency devices.
“Basically, it sat in the room where we did our training for close to a year,” says Osborne. Frustrated, he finally called the institute and asked them to pick up the device.
The National Institute of Justice did not respond to queries about what happened with the nonlethal weapon, other than to say it is still evaluating it. Raytheon, which builds and markets the device under the name Silent Guardian, also declined to comment on what happened. “We've provided our customers with directed energy systems that perform safely as intended,” says David Desilets, a Raytheon spokesman.
But it isn’t just local law enforcement that has had trouble fielding this sort of nonlethal weapon; the technology that was supposed to be used in the California jail was originally developed by the military, which wanted to employ it as a weapon for crowd control, or to repel attackers on a military base. The military version, called the Active Denial System (ADS), can be put on a Humvee or a truck, and has a longer-range than the police version.