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Voodoo Science and Non-Lethal Weapons

Written by Viktor Bovbjerg

The proliferation and employment of non-lethal weapons in military and domestic law enforcement applications has skyrocketed in the past decade. Weapons as simple as cayenne pepper sprays and as exotic as electro-muscular disruption devices have rapidly become mainstays in military and law enforcement arsenals throughout the world. As these devices have proven their worth, even more exotic devices are emerging.

One, the Active Denial System, uses a high-frequency radio wave to stimulate nerve endings without causing tissue damage at ranges that exceed those of conventional handheld lethal weapons. Other devices use highly focused acoustic waves that are debilitating but without long-term harm, or chemicals that simply smell so bad that no one wants to be around them. Indeed, more progress has been made in employing force without resorting to lethal options in the past two decades than in all previous history.

One might expect critics of injuries and deaths resulting from military and police confrontations to be among the first to laud the efforts to develop and employ safe and effective non-lethal options. Such has not been the case, however. Nearly from their inception, non-lethal weapons have been fraught with controversy.

The more pretentious allegations began arising in the early 1990s when the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that scores of people were dying as a result of the use of pepper spray and that pepper spray was a form of punishment and torture comparable to “cattle prods” and used to impose a “painful chemical street justice.” A series of lawsuits attempting to ban or limit the use of pepper spray followed. News reports repeated sensational claims that it appeared that “one person dies for every 600 times pepper spray is used.”

Studies that repudiated such claims from the National Institute of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police were slow in coming but provided strong evidence that the claims were greatly exaggerated, if true at all. Follow-up studies further supported the use of pepper spray as an effective and relatively safe method of controlling violent people, especially when other alternatives were inappropriate or unavailable. As the evidence continued to accumulate, the controversy (and related news value) diminished.

While much of the controversy on the use of pepper spray has died down in the United States, it has been supplanted by the TASER® electronic control device. The TASER (an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electronic Rifle) uses a small amount of electricity to involuntarily constrict the skeletal muscles. While it has been around since the 1970s, newer versions became available to law enforcement in the late 1990s.

The newer TASERs have been employed and carefully evaluated by law enforcement agencies, and strongly encouraging results have been reported. The effectiveness is often rated well into the 90th percentile—nearly unheard of for any force option, including lethal force. Within months of the first TASER uses, controversy erupted when Amnesty International reported that people were dying after being “tasered.”

Since then, the controversy has only heightened with Amnesty International now reporting that as many as 291 people have died as a result of “taser-related” deaths. Paralleling the experience with pepper spray, Amnesty International’s report, “United States of America: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International’s concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of tasers” quickly became the focus of considerable media attention.

Sadly, the law enforcement community continues to follow the same failed pathway through the quagmire of public opinion as we did with the pepper spray controversy! Bona fide scientific reports have been slow in coming, and some have been challenged because TASER International, the company that developed and sells TASERs, paid for its own research.

So what is the true story? Why are caring and well-meaning organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, convinced that TASERs and other non-lethal options are so dangerous? Why do news media outlets, who pride themselves on their objectivity, report findings that are inaccurate or biased and are later refuted? More important, how does a community make informed decisions about the weapons and force used on their behalf by their representatives when they receive conflicting information?

If science is to have any value, it must be believable, but when it conflicts, what is to be believed? Like the proverbial lost hiker with two compasses, each pointing a different direction, our communities are confused when civil libertarians are saying one thing and law enforcement agencies are saying another. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the development and employment of non-lethal options.

Simply put, much of the “science” cited by detractors of non-lethal options is either fundamentally flawed, misunderstood, mischaracterizes the evidence or ignores influences beyond the control of the user. It is an exceedingly rare occurrence when any of this so-called “science” is subject to peer review by objective researchers, cited in reports by other researchers or scientists, used in supporting references, or corroborated with other research by bona fide scientific or academic institutions. While it may take on any number of forms, it can be described as “voodoo science.”

Voodoo science may be best understood as a “catch all” term for any junk science that misleads or mischaracterizes the evidence. It matters not whether it was intentional, only that on the surface it is predisposed to make people believe something without scientific validity. While voodoo science can take on any number of forms, four types are used so often in describing non-lethal weapons that they merit mention.

One of the most common types of voodoo science in the media results from “pseudo-symmetry.” This occurs when even well-meaning news media outlets attempt to obtain a balanced perspective by seeking out and quoting opposing views. While this seems both logical and reasonable, it becomes misleading when an opposing view is actually held by a very small minority. Because the two opposing views are presented with equal emphasis, it appears to a layperson that subject matter experts are equally divided on the issue when in actuality the vast majority is on one side of the issue.

As can be imagined, pseudo-symmetry presents unparalleled opportunities for small minorities with radical viewpoints. In the controversy surrounding non-lethal options, one example of pseudo-symmetry occurred in 2002 after the Dubrovka Theater Siege in Moscow, Russia. The use of soporific chemicals as a non-lethal option had never before been attempted, and even though hundreds of hostages were saved, 129 lost their lives as a result of the inadequate aftercare.

In the media frenzy that followed, a previously unknown group called the “Sunshine Project” rocketed to national prominence when it was called upon to provide comment by the news media. Before this event, the group had only existed for about 36 months and at its height had less than 1,300 people on its largest Internet distribution list. It is now defunct.

Ignoring perspective is another characteristic of voodoo science. This occurs when an emotion-arousing factor is sensationalized without a contextual comparison. One of the best examples of ignoring perspective is the current controversy in the United States concerning the use of TASERs. Civil libertarian groups, especially Amnesty International, contend that as many as 291 victims have died as a result of “taser-related deaths.”

Although virtually all of the independent post-mortem investigations do not specify TASER exposure as a cause of death, or even a contributing cause of death, for the sake of argument, let’s assume all are causally related to TASER exposure. The more astute observer’s curiosity is quickly piqued when the first obvious question is how many people have been subjected to TASER shocks but have not died? That figure is at least 70,000 and probably many more.

The risk of dying after a TASER exposure is then 291 deaths divided by the 70,000 estimated field uses of TASERs to subdue subjects. Even if every post-TASER death was a direct result of exposure, the likelihood of dying after being shocked with a TASER would be about four-tenths of one percent. Certainly any unnecessary death is a tragedy, but by ignoring the total number of uses, it appears as if the event is far more common than it is. In contrast, compare the likelihood of surviving a lethal force encounter with American law enforcement.

As a rule of thumb, American law enforcement officers hit only about half of the people they shoot at, and of those hit, only about half actually die. This means that a suspect’s likelihood of dying while police are trying to save his life is at most 1 in 4,000, while the chance of death during the use of lethal force is 1 in 4.

Perhaps even more revealing is that there are actually two “control groups” from which to draw a comparison. The first comprises those of suspects being confronted by police. The second is comprised of police officers themselves! Police officers routinely subject themselves to experiencing the application of TASERs during training. Indeed, estimates range from 600,000 to more than 750,000 applications on police officers who have voluntarily been “tased.” What is nearly never reported, however, is that all the deaths recorded have been suspects, and none have been police officers, even though the exposure rate is one order of magnitude greater than for suspects!

Because of our faith in science, any evidence that appears to be scientific is automatically awarded more credibility than other types. Accordingly, a third manifestation of voodoo science in swaying opinion is by gathering anecdotal accounts and presenting it as evidence.

For example, listing newspaper articles, citing civil court cases or quoting litigants and plaintiff’s attorneys have proven very successful in capturing the attention of an audience. Nevertheless, given that newspaper accounts are nearly always second-hand anecdotes from a reporter quoting a witness and relying on statements provided by people who have an obvious interest in an outcome would be viewed as suspect individually, but when taken together, they appear to corroborate each other.

This type of voodoo science may best be described as “pseudo science” because its practitioners may believe it to be science, but to objective researchers, it is flawed on its face. Of the various forms of voodoo science, this type is second only to pseudo-symmetry in prevalence, especially when supporting opinions for reports and press releases.

The fourth of the most common types of voodoo science is by using fallacies. A fallacy occurs when an argument or statement is supported by an invalid inference. In the case of non-lethal weapons, it is most commonly manifested by either ignoring the influence of other factors or making assumptions that exceed the evidence. No better example exists than in the claims that 291 “taser-related deaths” have occurred.

Without ignoring the possibility that TASERs might have a role in the deaths, it is disingenuous not to consider that many of the people who have died after being shocked with a TASER had serious, often preexisting life-threatening medical issues, many times because they “self-medicated” with cocaine, PCP, methamphetamine or other drugs.

Furthermore, many were engaged in life-threatening behaviors that required some type of intervention to protect human life—including their own—and without an ability to employ an effective less-lethal option, they might very well have been killed outright. In these circumstances, even the noble attempts to save their lives are made to appear contemptible.

Both civil libertarians and law enforcement organizations seek safer and more effective methods of reducing death and injuries during violent confrontations but are so at odds in how best to achieve these reductions that more effort is spent arguing than in collaborating. It is particularly troublesome, however, when even the supporting information is so tainted as to render it meaningless.

Certainly, voodoo science is not limited to the controversy surrounding non-lethal options. In recent years, the public has been terrified of cancer from cell phones and captivated with the possibilities of unlimited, pollution-free energy from cold fusion, neither of which has withstood the scrutiny of scientific inquiry.

Non-lethal weapons can provide moral alternatives in inherently amoral circumstances, but completely safe and effective technologies remain elusive. In the search for these options, only objective approaches to examining them can balance the risks and benefits of their use. Protecting the peace while preserving life is a gallant calling, but it is far more difficult to achieve without objective science and fair reporting.

Charles “Sid” Heal, is a retired commander of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Dr. Viktor Bovbjerg is from the University of Virginia Medical Center, and Dr. John Kenny is from Pennsylvania State University, Applied Research Laboratory.

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2009

Rating : 5.5


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