Pepper spray, tasers, tear gas, rubber bullets — these “non-lethal” weapons are being used by more and more local police forces, as well as military forces brought in to control civilian crowds and other situations. Despite their name, non-lethal weapons have been known to cause deaths … and as Stephen Coleman suggests, there are other, more insidious hazards as well. He explores the complex ethics — and the unexpected consequences — of using non-lethal weapons to control civilians.
By Stephen Coleman, Ethicist
What I want to talk to you about today is some of the problems that the military of the Western world — Australia, United States, U.K. and so on — face in some of the deployments that they’re dealing with in the modern world at this time. If you think about the sorts of things that we’ve sent Australian military personnel to in recent years, we’ve got obvious things like Iraq and Afghanistan, but you’ve also got things like East Timor and the Solomon Islands and so on.
0:37 And a lot of these deployments that we’re actually sending military personnel to these days aren’t traditional wars. In fact, a lot of the jobs that we’re asking the military personnel to do in these situations are ones that, in their own countries, in Australia, the United States and so on, would actually be done by police officers. And so there’s a bunch of problems that come up for military personnel in these situations, because they’re doing things that they haven’t really been trained for, and they’re doing things that those who do them in their own countries are trained very differently for and equipped very differently for.
1:11 Now there’s a bunch of reasons why we actually do send military personnel rather than police to do these jobs. If Australia had to send a thousand people tomorrow to West Papua for example, we don’t have a thousand police officers hanging around that could just go tomorrow and we do have a thousand soldiers that could go. So when we have to send someone, we send the military — because they’re there, they’re available and, heck, they’re used to going off and doing these things and living by themselves and not having all this extra support. So they are able to do it in that sense. But they aren’t trained in the same way that police officers are and they’re certainly not equipped in the same way police officers are.
1:47 And so this has raised a bunch of problems for them when dealing with these sorts of issues. One particular thing that’s come up that I am especially interested in is the question of whether, when we’re sending military personnel to do these sorts of jobs, we ought to be equipping them differently, and in particular, whether we ought to be giving them access to some of the sorts of non-lethal weapons that police have. Since they’re doing some of these same jobs, maybe they should have some of those things.
2:10 And of course, there’s a range of places where you’d think those things would be really useful. So for example, when you’ve got military checkpoints. If people are approaching these checkpoints and the military personnel there are unsure whether this person’s hostile or not. Say this person approaching here, and they say, “Well is this a suicide bomber or not? Have they got something hidden under their clothing? What’s going to happen?” They don’t know whether this person’s hostile or not. If this person doesn’t follow directions, then they may end up shooting them and then find out afterward either, yes, we shot the right person, or, no, this was just an innocent person who didn’t understand what was going on. So if they had non-lethal weapons then they would say, “Well we can use them in that sort of situation. If we shoot someone who wasn’t hostile, at least we haven’t killed them.”
2:51 Another situation. This photo is actually from one of the missions in the Balkans in the late 1990s. Situation’s a little bit different where perhaps they know someone who’s hostile, where they’ve got someone shooting at them or doing something else that’s clearly hostile, throwing rocks, whatever. But if they respond, there’s a range of other people around, who are innocent people who might also get hurt — be collateral damage that the military often doesn’t want to talk about. So again, they would say, “Well if we have access to non-lethal weapons, if we’ve got someone we know is hostile, we can do something to deal with them and know that if we hit anyone else around the place, at least, again, we’re not going to kill them.”
3:26 Another suggestion has been, since we’re putting so many robots in the field, we can see the time coming where they’re actually going to be sending robots out in the field that are autonomous. They’re going to make their own decisions about who to shoot and who not to shoot without a human in the loop. And so the suggestion is, well hey, if we’re going to send robots out and allow them to do this, maybe it would be a good idea, again, with these things if they were armed with non-lethal weapons so that if the robot makes a bad decision and shoots the wrong person, again, they haven’t actually killed them.
3:54 Now there’s a whole range of different sorts of non-lethal weapons, some of which are obviously available now, some of which they’re developing. So you’ve got traditional things like pepper spray, O.C. spray up at the top there, or Tasers over here. The one on the top right here is actually a dazzling laser intended to just blind the person momentarily and disorient them. You’ve got non-lethal shotgun rounds that contain rubber pellets instead of the traditional metal ones. And this one in the middle here, the large truck, is actually called the Active Denial System — something the U.S. military is working on at the moment.
4:28 It’s essentially a big microwave transmitter. It’s sort of your classic idea of a heat ray. It goes out to a really long distance, compared to any of these other sorts of things. And anybody who is hit with this feels this sudden burst of heat and just wants to get out of the way. It is a lot more sophisticated than a microwave oven, but it is basically boiling the water molecules in the very surface level of your skin. So you feel this massive heat, and you go, “I want to get out of the way.” And they’re thinking, well this will be really useful in places like where we need to clear a crowd out of a particular area, if the crowd is being hostile. If we need to keep people away from a particular place, we can do that with these sorts of things.
5:09 So obviously there’s a whole range of different sorts of non-lethal weapons we could give military personnel and there’s a whole range of situations where they’re looking a them and saying, “Hey, these things could be really useful.” But as I said, the military and the police are very different. Yes, you don’t have to look very hard at this to recognize the fact that they might be very different. In particular, the attitude to the use of force and the way they’re trained to use force is especially different.
5:37 The police — and knowing because I’ve actually helped to train police — police, in particular Western jurisdictions at least, are trained to de-escalate force, to try and avoid using force wherever possible, and to use lethal force only as an absolute last resort. Military personnel are being trained for war, so they’re trained that, as soon as things go bad, their first response is lethal force. The moment the fecal matter hits the rotating turbine, you can start shooting at people. So their attitudes to the use of lethal force are very different, and I think it’s fairly obvious that their attitude to the use of non-lethal weapons would also be very different from what it is with the police.
6:26 And since we’ve already had so many problems with police use of non-lethal weapons in various ways, I thought it would be a really good idea to look at some of those things and try to relate it to the military context. And I was really surprised when I started to do this, to see that, in fact, even those people who were advocating the use of non-lethal weapons by the military hadn’t actually done that. They generally seem to think, “Well, why would we care what’s happened with the police? We’re looking at something different,” and didn’t seem to recognize, in fact, they were looking at pretty much the same stuff.
6:55 So I actually started to investigate some of those issues and have a look at the way that police use non-lethal weapons when they’re introduced and some of the problems that might arise out of those sorts of things when they actually do introduce them. And of course, being Australian, I started looking at stuff in Australia, knowing, again, from my own experience about various times when non-lethal weapons have been introduced in Australia.
7:18 So one of the things I particularly looked at was the use of O.C. spray, oleoresin capsicum spray, pepper spray, by Australian police and seeing when that had been introduced, what had happened and those sorts of issues. And one study that I found, a particularly interesting one, was actually in Queensland, because they had a trial period for the use of pepper spray before they actually introduced it more broadly. And I went and had a look at some of the figures here. Now when they introduced O.C. spray in Queensland, they were really explicit. The police minister had a whole heap of public statements made about it. They were saying, “This is explicitly intended to give police an option between shouting and shooting. This is something they can use instead of a firearm in those situations where they would have previously had to shoot someone.”
8:05 So I went and looked at all of these police shooting figures. And you can’t actually find them very easily for individual Australian states. I could only find these ones. This is from a Australian Institute of Criminology report. As you can see from the fine print, if you can read it at the top: “Police shooting deaths” means not just people who have been shot by police, but people who have shot themselves in the presence of police. But this is the figures across the entire country. And the red arrow represents the point where Queensland actually said, “Yes, this is where we’re going to give all police officers across the entire state access to O.C. spray.” So you can see there were six deaths sort of leading up to it every year for a number of years. There was a spike, of course, a few years before, but that wasn’t actually Queensland. Anyone know where that was? Wasn’t Port Arthur, no. Victoria? Yes, correct. That spike was all Victoria. So it wasn’t that Queensland had a particular problem with deaths from police shootings and so on. So six shootings across the whole country, fairly consistently over the years before.
9:03 So the next two years were the years they studied — 2001, 2002. Anyone want to take a stab at the number of times, given how they’ve introduced this, the number of times police in Queensland used O.C. spray in that period? Hundreds? One, three. Thousand is getting better. Explicitly introduced as an alternative to the use of lethal force — an alternative between shouting and shooting. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if Queensland police didn’t have O.C. spray, they wouldn’t have shot 2,226 people in those two years. In fact, if you have a look at the studies that they were looking at, the material they were collecting and examining, you can see the suspects were only armed in about 15 percent of cases where O.C. spray was used.
9:53 It was routinely being used in this period, and, of course, still is routinely used — because there were no complaints about it, not within the context of this study anyway — it was routinely being used to deal with people who were violent, who were potentially violent, and also quite frequently used to deal with people who were simply passively non-compliant. This person is not doing anything violent, but they just won’t do what we want them to. They’re not obeying the directions that we’re giving them, so we’ll give them a shot of the O.C. spray. That’ll speed them up. Everything will work out better that way. This was something explicitly introduced to be an alternative to firearms, but it’s being routinely used to deal with a whole range of other sorts of problems.
10:39 Now one of the particular issues that comes up with military use of non-lethal weapons — and people when they’re actually saying, “Well hey, there might be some problems” — there’s a couple of particular problems that get focused on. One of those problems is that non-lethal weapons may be used indiscriminately. One of the fundamental principles of military use of force is that you have to be discriminate. You have to be careful about who you’re shooting at. So one of the problems that’s been suggested with non-lethal weapons is that they might be used indiscriminately — that you use them against a whole range of people because you don’t have to worry so much anymore.
11:13 And in fact, one particular instance where I think that actually happens where you can look at it was the Dubrovka Theatre siege in Moscow in 2002, which probably a lot of you, unlike most of my students at ADFA, are actually old enough to remember. So Chechens had come in and taken control of the theater. They were holding something like 700 people hostage. They’d released a bunch of people, but they still had about 700 people hostage. And the Russian special military police, special forces, Spetsnaz, came in and actually stormed the theater. And the way they did it was to pump the whole thing full of anesthetic gas. And it turned out that lots of these hostages actually died as a result of inhaling the gas. It was used indiscriminately. They pumped the whole theater full of the gas.
11:58 And it’s no surprise that people died, because you don’t know how much of this gas each person is going to inhale, what position they’re going to fall in when they become unconscious and so on. There were, in fact, only a couple of people who got shot in this episode. So when they had a look at it afterward, there were only a couple of people who’d apparently been shot by the hostage takers or shot by the police forces coming in and trying to deal with the situation. Virtually everybody that got killed got killed from inhaling the gas. The final toll of hostages is a little unclear, but it’s certainly a few more than that, because there were other people who died over the next few days. So this was one particular problem they talked about, that it might be used indiscriminately.
12:39 Second problem that people sometimes talk about with military use of non-lethal weapons, and it’s actually the reason why in the chemical weapons convention, it’s very clear that you can’t use riot control agents as a weapon of warfare, the problem with that is that it’s seen that sometimes non-lethal weapons might actually be used, not as an alternative to lethal force, but as a lethal force multiplier — that you use non-lethal weapons first so that your lethal weapons will actually be more effective. The people you’re going to be shooting at aren’t going to be able to get out of the way. They’re not going to be aware of what’s happening and you can kill them better. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened here. The hostage takers who had been rendered unconscious by the gas were not taken into custody, they were simply shot in the head. So this non-lethal weapon was being used, in fact, in this case as a lethal force multiplier to make killing more effective in this particular situation.
13:34 Another problem that I just want to quickly mention is that there’s a whole heap of problems with the way that people actually get taught to use non-lethal weapons and get trained about them and then get tested and so on. Because they get tested in nice, safe environments. And people get taught to use them in nice, safe environments like this, where you can see exactly what’s going on. The person who’s spraying the O.C. spray is wearing a rubber glove to make sure they don’t get contaminated and so on. But they don’t ever get used like that.
14:00 They get used out in the real world, like in Texas, like this. I confess, this particular case was actually one that piqued my interest in this. It happened while I was working as a research fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy. And news reports started coming up about this situation where this woman was arguing with the police officer. She wasn’t violent. In fact, he was probably six inches taller than me, and she was about this tall. And eventually she said to him “Well I’m going to get back in my car.” And he says, “If you get back into your car, I’m going to tase you.” And she says, “Oh, go ahead. Tase me.” And so he does. And it’s all captured by the video camera running in the front of the police car. So she’s 72, and it’s seen that this is the most appropriate way of dealing with her.
14:49 And other examples of the same sorts of things with other people where you think where you think, “Is this really an appropriate way to use non-lethal weapons?” “Police chief fires Taser into 14 year-old girl’s head.” “She was running away. What else was I suppose to do?” (Laughter) Or Florida: “Police Taser six year-old boy at elementary school.” And they clearly learned a lot from it because in the same district, “Police review policy after children shocked: 2nd child shocked by Taser stun gun within weeks.” Same police district. Another child within weeks of Tasering the six year-old boy.
15:23 Just in case you think it’s only going to happen in the United States, it happened in Canada as well. And a colleague of mine sent me this one from London. But my personal favorite of these ones, I have to confess, does actually come from the United States: “Officers Taser 86 year-old disabled woman in her bed.” I checked the reports on this one. I looked at it. I was really surprised. Apparently she took up a more threatening position in her bed. (Laughter) I kid you not. That’s exactly what it said. “She took up a more threatening position in her bed.” Okay.
16:01 But I’d remind you what I’m talking about, I’m talking about military uses of non-lethal weapons. So why is this relevant? Because police are actually more restrained in the use of force than the military are. They’re trained to be more restrained in the use of force than the military are. They’re trained to think more, to try and de-escalate. So if you have these problems with police officers with non-lethal weapons, what on earth would make you think it’s going to be better with military personnel?
16:26 The last thing that I would just like to say, when I’m talking to the police about what a perfect non-lethal weapon would look like, they almost inevitably say the same thing. They say, “Well, it’s got to be something that’s nasty enough that people don’t want to be hit with this weapon. So if you threaten to use it, people are going to comply with it, but it’s also going to be something that doesn’t leave any lasting effects.” In other words, your perfect non-lethal weapon is something that’s perfect for abuse. What would these guys have done if they’d had access to Tasers or to a manned, portable version of the Active Denial System — a small heat ray that you can use on people and not worry about it.
17:09 So I think, yes, there may be ways that non-lethal weapons are going to be great in these situations, but there’s also a whole heap of problems that need to be considered as well.
17:18 Thanks very much.