Some science behind the scenes

Electrical weapons

[Extracted from Occasional Paper No. 1; The Early History of “Non-Lethal” Weapons - Neil Davison, December 2006,  Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project (BNLWRP) Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK]

Electrical-shock weapons have their roots not in policing or riot control but in
farming and torture. In Argentina the barbed cattle prod was replaced with an
electrical version, the picana electrica, in the 1930’s. As Rejali observes, “the
picana electrica combines portability, flexibility and low amperage. It is also
cheap. In this sense, it qualifies as the first electric stun technology…”103 It
was soon adopted by the Argentinean police as a torture device for use during
interrogation:

In 1932, it entered into police work in Buenos Aires and little has changed in its usage
since that time. Victims are strapped to a wooden table and wetted down to aid the
current. The prod operator applies the wand to sensitive parts of the body (head,
temples, mouth, genitalia, breasts) while the machine operator works the bobbin,
raising and reducing voltage. The victim often bites on rubber or lead to make sure
that the tongue is not bit off during the shocks.104

Rejali argues that the requirements of the torturer in terms of electrical
weaponry are similar to those of the police officer using them as “non-lethal”
weapons. The device must deliver the “maximal amount of shock and pain” to
stun the victim without killing and, in addition, the weapon should be portable.
His examination of the US patent record illustrates the close connection
between the development of electrical weapons for use against animals,
which had been patented from the early 1900’s onwards, and those for use
against humans:

…a new kind of cattle-prod was used as the basis for a new kind of stun gun, a new
kind of stun gun handle was then reused for a better stock-prod. The same patent
string included prods, grips, canes, flashlights, forks, guns and batons.105

He argues that the calls in the US during the 1960’s and 1970’s for the
development of “non-lethal” weapons simply led to a re-branding of existing
electrical weaponry with the same devices patented as cattle prods now
characterised as “non-lethal” weapons. As in Argentina, the police in the US
had already adopted the electric cattle prod, which was used against civil
rights activists in the Southern states as early as the 1950’s106 and caused
widespread public outrage.107

In his 1969 book on riot control Applegate mounted a defence of the police,
characterizing their use of the cattle prod, perplexingly, as a “non violent”
technique. In an attempt to draw a line under the adverse publicity, he
describes the ‘shock baton’, a product of military-sponsored development
(and essentially a repackaged and redesigned cattle prod), as an important
and “humane tool” for police.108 His proposals for its use present it primarily
as a compliance tool for police rather than an alternative to lethal force:

Non violent individuals in its path will quickly “melt away.” With it [shock baton], the
passive lay-down resister can be easily discouraged without having to carry him away.
… Police on the beat can use it to handle and move, with a minimum of force, drunks of
both sexes, teenagers, alcoholics, derelicts, etc. Prison guards, attendants at mental
facilities, and plant security forces are also potential users.109

Worryingly, these comments are echoed in some of the policy underpinning
police use of electrical weapons in the US today.110

In the 1970’s two major studies of “non lethal” weapons saw electrical
weapons as one of the most promising technologies for further
development.111 The final report of the US Army research into “non-lethal”
weapons also argued that electrical weapons offered many advantages over
existing chemical and kinetic energy weapons: “Some of the advantages are:
Broad spectrum of incapacitation, predictable physiological effect,
controllability of dose, rapid incapacitation etc.”112 Nevertheless public
aversion to electrical weapons in the US was pervasive and it limited research
and development. The US Army report noted:

It is rather strange that this particular area of less-lethal weapons has been curtailed
because as shown above, electrical devices have, in concept, many of the desirable
features of less-lethal devices except, of course, the most critical feature of public
acceptance.113

But this should not, perhaps, have come as such a surprise. The very reason
Applegate gives to promote electrical weapons is that which underlies unease
about them amongst the majority of people: “Almost all people have an
instinctive dislike and fear of electricity and the shock effect which it produces,
and will retreat when in this danger.”114 This feeling is, of course,
compounded by the history of torture with electrical-shock devices. However,
Rejali argues that a misunderstanding about the origins of electrical torture,
particularly the role of technological development, “… allows ordinary people,
on the one hand, to condemn the diffusion of electric torture instruments and
on the other hand, to tolerate its everyday use in their communities.”115

SIPRI’s 1978 study of anti-personnel weapons noted: “Patents for electric
guns, spears, arrows and harpoons have been awarded over the past 100
years but few have come into operation.”116 The most significant exception
was the Taser, invented by John Cover and patented in 1974. As Lauer has
described, Cover reportedly developed the Taser, incorporating a high voltage
low amperage pulsed electric current, in response to the recommendations of
the Presidential Crime Commission of the late 1960’s and:

By 1970, Cover had built his first prototype electrical weapon which he called the
"TASER," an acronym for the "Thomas A Swift’s Electrical Rifle," which was named
after the Tom Swift fantasy stories of Cover’s childhood.117

Overcoming the range limitations of an electric baton or ‘touch stun’ device,
the Taser design was summarised in the original patent as follows:

A weapon for subduing and restraining includes a harmless projectile that is
connected by means of a relatively fine, conductive wire to a launcher which contains
an electrical power supply. The projectile is intended to contact a living target without
serious trauma and to deliver an electric charge thereto sufficient to immobilize.118

Cover also envisioned the capability to control the magnitude of the electrical
current at the weapon so that it would “…range in effect from immobilizing to
potentially "lethal" levels.”119 The idea for using pulsed (or intermittent)
electric currents arose from published safety studies on the use of electric
fences.120

The initial model was called the TF-1 was marketed by Cover’s company
Taser Systems with an electrical power output of 5-7 watts.121 It was
demonstrated to a number of law enforcement agencies in the US, the
majority of which were unimpressed,122 in part due to the unfavourable public
opinion about electrical weapons at the time. However, civilian markets,
including the US airline industry showed greater interest and over 2,000
Tasers were sold in 1975 to members of the public, security guards and some
policemen.123 However, later in 1975 sales were halted by the US Consumer
Product Safety Commission pending an investigation. In 1976 the
Commission concluded that the Taser was “non-lethal” to healthy individuals
and lifted its ban.124 But also in 1976 the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms classified the Taser as a firearm, requiring registration and severely
restricting sales. The State Department also limited its’ sale overseas due to
concerns that it may be used for torture. Concerns that, given the historical
precedent, were well founded. Taser’s profile was further raised as it was
used in crimes such as robberies across the US. As a result two states,
Michigan and New York, passed laws prohibiting the possession of Tasers by
members of the public. Buying, selling or possessing a Taser was made
illegal in Canada.125

Another method for extending the range of electrical weapons was conceived
by Wall, who patented the concept of using two water jets with opposing
charges to convey an electrical charge to the victim. The patent was filed i
By the mid-1980’s the Taser had been adopted by some police departments
in the US but it was not widely used.227 In 1980 the Los Angeles Police
Department (LAPD) had purchased 700 of the TF-76 model Taser, originally
introduced in 1976, for patrol use.228 In 1982 the LAPD approved the Taser
for use and officers at the 1986 National Institute of Justice conference
reported relatively low-level use, around two times per month in the three to
four years preceding the conference.229 In a 1991 article Kornblum and
Reddy reported that the Taser had been used “several thousand times” by the
LAPD since its approval in 1982.230 The electrical power output of the TF-76
was larger than previous models at 11 watts.231 The Taser was considered to
have limitations in reliability and effectiveness, particularly against those
under the influence of drugs and those wearing heavy clothing, and the
participants at the NIJ conference considered improvements to the device of
high priority.232 By the time of the conference the Taser Systems Company
had filed for bankruptcy in large part due to restrictions on sales to members
of the public and to foreign countries resulting from the classification of Taser
as a firearm.233 Taser Systems was sold to investors who, from 1986
onwards, operated the company under the name Tasertron.234 The first
model they introduced was the TE-86, a two shot Taser with a power output of
5-7 watts. 235 Tasertron electrical weapons were only sold to authorised
police, security, and military agencies and were not made available to the
civilian market.236

A variety of other hand-held ‘stun guns’, used at arms length with no
projectiles, were available at the time and, with less restrictions on their sale
(they were not classified as firearms in the US), they were widely marketed to
the US public as well as the police.237 One new device that became available
during the 1980’s was the Nova XR-5000 Stun Gun, which is still sold today.
The 1987 NIJ conference report estimated:

The number of Tasers in use (or purchased) probably numbers in the thousands.
The number of Novas in circulation may be in the order of a few hundred thousand.238

Another available device was a glove fitted with an electrical generator that
was in use in US prisons. The report noted that these devices, like the Taser,
were limited in terms of effectiveness.239 Another issue raised at the
conference was the police concern over the availability of stun weapons to the
general public.240

With increasing adoption of Tasers and other ‘stun guns’ by a few US police
departments during the 1980’s scientific attention was drawn to the health
effects of these weapons. The use of Tasers had been followed by a number
of deaths during the 1980’s and, echoing contemporary debates, opinion was
divided on the role of Taser.241 Pathologists, Kornblum and Reddy,
considered 16 deaths in the Los Angeles area following Taser use by police
and concluded that drug overdose was the cause of death in the majority of
cases.242 Allen contested this conclusion arguing that:

As pathologists, we should warn law-enforcement agencies that tasers can cause
death. It seems only logical that a device capable of depolarizing skeletal muscle can
also depolarize heart muscle and cause fibrillation under certain circumstances.
Furthermore, while the use of tasers may be generally safe in healthy adults,
pre-exisitng heart disease, psychosis, and the use of drugs including cocaine, PCP,
amphetamine and alcohol may substantially increase the risk of fatality.243

Amnesty International drew attention to the use of electrical-shock weapons
for torture and in the 1980’s they campaigned against the proliferation of
these weapons to South Korea, Taiwan and China. Amnesty’s 1997 report,
Arming the Torturers: Electro-shock Torture and the Spread of Stun
Technology
, observed that Taiwan and China subsequently became leading
manufacturers of these weapons and “during the 1980s and 1990s production
of stun weapons began in several other countries such as Brazil, France,
Germany, Israel, Mexico and South Africa.”