Article — From the March 2010 issue

The Soft-Kill Solution

New frontiers in pain compliance

( 3 of 8 )

Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response. Little had changed in crowd-control technology since the 1920s, when the Army Chemical Warfare Service persuaded some larger U.S. police departments to adopt the CN, or “tear gas,” used in the trenches during World War I. If technological advances had improved every other part of the U.S. system of production and control, why shouldn’t science now provide a better way to control society’s unruly elements? Among these policymakers was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, which noted ruefully in its 1968 report: “The police who faced the New York riot of 1863 were equipped with two weapons: a wooden stick and a gun. For the most part, the police faced with urban disorders last summer had to rely on two weapons: a wooden stick and a gun.”

Convened by Lyndon Johnson in July 1967 after devastating riots in Newark and Detroit, the Kerner Commission released its report the following March, only weeks before King’s assassination. It blamed “white racism” for creating an “explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II” and was widely quoted for its ominous conclusion: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The commission proposed vast initiatives to reduce inner-city unemployment, improve schools and housing, and end the police bias and brutality that played a major role in sparking the riots. “To many Negroes,” the commission noted, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression.” Especially severe were its comments on the “excessive use of force”:

The harmful effects of overreaction are incalculable. The Commission condemns moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns and tanks. Weapons which are designed to destroy, not to control, have no place in densely populated urban communities.

The commission recognized that in riot control, the dilemma facing police was “too much force or too little.” Warning that excessive force “will incite the mob to further violence, as well as kindle seeds of resentment for police that, in turn, could cause a riot to recur,” the commission identified the problem as the lack of a “middle range of physical force.” It saw the solution in “nonlethal control equipment,” and called for an urgent program of research, noting some of the possibilities:

Distinctive marking dyes or odors and the filming of rioters have been recommended both to deter and positively identify persons guilty of illegal acts. Sticky tapes, adhesive blobs, and liquid foam are advocated to immobilize or block rioters. Intensely bright lights and loud distressing sounds capable of creating temporary disability may prove to be useful. Technology will provide still other options.

4 Although the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons — including “tear gas” — in warfare, certain “riot-control agents” have long been used in domestic law enforcement. The United States has always claimed the prerogative to use RCAs in riot control during military operations abroad; some 15 million pounds of CS were used during the Vietnam War.

Until then, police were advised to use “chemical agents” to suppress riots, particularly CS, the successor to CN, which the Army had already deployed in Vietnam — not to control riots but to flush enemy troops out of tunnels and bunkers, in violation of the Geneva Protocol.4 Despite widespread outrage over the military’s use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, the commission argued that Army experience proved CS was “more effective and safer” than the traditional CN, and therefore “the understandable concern of many police and public officials as to the wisdom of using massive amounts of gas in densely populated areas need no longer prove a barrier.”

Republicans denounced the commission’s spending proposals as “soft on crime,” and Johnson, too, rejected them. The commission’s riot-control recommendations, however, were quickly adopted into the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, a bill that funded a veritable Manhattan Project for domestic policing, creating, among other things, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which over the next decade released $12 billion for local police to modernize their training and hardware; police departments across the country were soon stocking up on CS and gas masks. The LEAA’s research arm, the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, in turn spawned an entire cottage industry devoted to producing “non-lethal control equipment,” including hand-held dispensers of “chemical irritants,” “blunt trauma” projectiles like the rubber bullets used by the British in Northern Ireland, electrical devices like the “shock baton,” and the Taser, the first version of which appeared at this time.5 There followed such a flurry of invention that in 1971 the National Science Foundation stepped in to provide guidance, sponsoring a study published as Nonlethal Weapons for Law Enforcement: Research Needs and Priorities, part of its project to “identify areas in which scientific research can help solve social problems”; out of this grew an Army Human Engineering Laboratory program to test weapons under scientific conditions. Soon, nearly all of today’s concepts for non-lethal weapons had either been proposed or were in some stage of development.

5 “Taser” is an acronym for the Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, named after the inventor-hero of the popular boys’ adventure novels, which were a childhood favorite of the weapon’s inventor, John Cover, a NASA scientist.

But as ghettos quieted and antiwar protest declined, interest in these technologies faded; the new front was the “war on drugs” declared by Richard Nixon. The LEAA spent billions of dollars to equip local police with helicopters, mobile command centers, and state-of-the-art radio systems. Los Angeles created the Special Weapons and Tactics team, and drug-war funding soon made SWAT the model for law enforcement, spreading military hardware and commando training far and wide — a trend that escalated dramatically after Ronald Reagan, now president, declared his own “war on drugs” and Congress passed the 1981 Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act. One result of giving domestic police advanced military capabilities was that the United States soon led the world in jailing its citizens; as of 2007, 2.3 million were incarcerated, with an additional 5.1 million under some form of correctional supervision.

is a writer living in Brooklyn. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Owning the Weather,” appeared in the January 2006 issue.

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