The future of crowd control

Security technology: Should a more high-tech approach to keeping the peace, using sounds, shocks and stinks, replace existing methods? WHEN faced with rowdy protesters, police forces have a number of tools at their disposal with which to disperse crowds and quell violence, including batons, shields, rubber bullets and water cannons. But these antiquated devices are crude and rely on brute force, which can lead to further violence and can, in some situations, prove lethal. A number of new crowd-control technologies take a different approach, employing sounds, shocks and stinks to disperse or incapacitate protesters. Such “non-lethal weapons” (NLWs) have been talked about for years, but they are now attracting much more interest, for a simple reason: Iraq. It is not only human-rights activists and conspiracy theorists who regard NLWs with suspicion. Without rigorous, peer-reviewed research into the effects of all of these devices on people, it is impossible to be sure that they are any safer than batons and rubber bullets. The term “non-lethal” is something of a misnomer, since weapons described as such do not have to pass any specific test to demonstrate their non-lethal nature, and nearly all NLWs can kill if used in a certain manner.

Between 1997 and 2003, America's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Programme, which co-ordinates the development of NLWs for the American military, had an annual budget of around $22m. In 2004, it was increased to $43.3m. The extra funding reflects the growing need, in Iraq in particular, for ways to control crowds while causing as little harm as possible.


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