The law enforcement and corrections communities are always looking for new less-than-lethal technologies to add to their arsenal to effectively deal with a myriad of scenarios that call for some level of force. No single less-than-lethal technology fits every situation. Some are designed to target one individual while others are intended for use on multiple subjects. Existing options include tasers, rubber bullets, chemical agents, sound cannons, water cannons, slippery foam, electro-muscular disruption technology, special impact munitions and temporary visual impairment devices.
Active Denial is an innovative less-than-lethal technology that is still highly experimental in the corrections arena. Although it has not come to fruition for corrections, it is interesting to explore the progression of this potential futuristic technology. As with many new technologies, it has a colorful history with many starts and stops in development, beta testing and deployment across disciplines, including corrections. Development of Active Denial technology began more than 15 years ago by Raytheon, a Waltham, Mass.-headquartered defense contractor, under the auspices of the Department of Defense, Air Force Research Laboratory. Like many cutting-edge technologies that may one day have corrections application, it was originally developed for military use.
Unlike tasers that can only be used on a single person, Active Denial Systems can be used in situations where multiple individuals are present. In corrections, the application and benefits of multi-targeted, less-than-lethal technology is clear. These types of weapons can be used effectively to temporarily incapacitate subjects to prevent assaults or break up fights without causing injury to staff or inmates. Staff or uninvolved inmates who may be in the area will not suffer any ill effects. In the event of a group disturbance, disorder, riot or hostage situation, it allows staff to quickly intervene without having to physically enter the area. Less-than-lethal technology can be used to isolate and contain inmates in a particular area and prevent them from entering restricted areas or escaping. As an alternative to lethal force, employing less-than-lethal technology in serious incidents to control groups and disperse crowds can prevent escalation of violence without having to exercise more force than might be necessary.
Active Denial Systems direct an invisible focused beam of millimeter wave electromagnetic energy with a frequency of 95 gigahertz. The wave travels at the speed of light and penetrates the outer layers of the targeted individual’s skin, to a shallow depth of 1/64 of an inch. This heats the top layer of the skin instantly inducing an intensely painful, but harmless, heat sensation. The intolerable burning sensation repels the individual causing them to pull away reflexively. It is important to note that, although the heat feels intense, it is just a sensation and does not actually burn the person. The pain immediately ceases when the person pulls away from the beam. Active Denial technology does not cause any visible or permanent injury because of the very shallow penetration depth of the millimeter wave.
In September 2004, Raytheon was granted an FCC license to demonstrate the technology to law enforcement, military and security organizations. Corrections quickly showed interest in the technology. Around that time, Alex experienced Active Denial firsthand when he invited a Department of Defense scientist to demonstrate an interesting emerging technology to a national group of senior level correctional administrators. The scientist asked for volunteers to try the prototype version of an Active Denial System, which was simply a small black box, the size of a shoebox. With some reluctance, I raised my hand. He asked me to put my hand over an opening in the box then pressed a red button. I immediately pulled my hand off the box and flew backwards. Remarkably, the painful intense heat sensation was quick yet short lived and did not leave any residual effects on my hand. He then turned to the audience and asked if this less-than-lethal technology was weaponized would it be a usable tool in corrections? The overwhelming answer was yes.
Since its inception several versions have been developed with the main applications of military use, maritime security and law enforcement. Over time, the systems have become smaller and more suited to various applications. The first Active Denial System prototype intended for military use was completed in 2000 and was a 7.5-ton unit that was too big to transport. A later mobile version resembling a satellite dish can be mounted on top of a heavy military vehicle. Raytheon subsequently developed smaller versions that can be mounted on walls, ceilings or ships for maritime, law enforcement and corrections use. The military Active Denial Systems have a longer range than the law enforcement and corrections systems. Prototypes for smaller handheld systems that could have law enforcement and possibly corrections applications are also being explored.
As with many new military and law enforcement technologies, the use of Active Denial Systems has been strife with controversy. While they are intended to reduce violence and prevent the use of lethal force, for some people the idea of using less-than-lethal weapons that cause pain raises political, economic, health and human rights issues. Similar opposition was expressed when tasers were first introduced but perhaps more so with Active Denial because it targets multiple individuals. Concerns have been raised that the technology could be abused and used as a means of torture. Opponents say that inmates would be subjected to excessive force to inflict pain rather control and that it would go undetected because there are no visible signs left on the person after they are exposed. Concerns have also been expressed about whether it could cause unintended effects, illness or injury. Some people have concerns that outside of military and correctional settings, law enforcement could use this technology to control peaceful protesters and dissent, which is unacceptable in this society.
Many people want Active Denial technology to undergo further review before it is introduced. In the past several years, initiatives by the military and corrections were halted for various reasons. In 2010, the military deployed the less-than-lethal Active Denial System to Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, it was withdrawn from service without ever being used and a decision was made to recall it back to the U.S. Amongst the political concerns were that it would be used for propaganda by the Taliban who could claim that weapons were being used against citizens. It was also feared that it could be viewed as a torture device, and this conflicted with the military’s efforts to be viewed as more humane by the Afghans. Ironically, the objective was to aid in crowd control in certain hostile situations while avoiding civilian casualties and saving lives. It has since been noted that in 2012 the Russian government announced a plan to build its own version.
As a U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice initiate, Raytheon developed a smaller Active Denial System suitable for use by law enforcement and corrections. The new system is a smaller version of the military system. The 7.5-foot-tall unit is designed to be mounted on a ceiling and has a shorter range than the military version. It is operated by a joystick with a built-in safety feature that allows it to only emit the beam for a few seconds when triggered. In order to emit another beam, it must be released and triggered again. This system was installed at the Pitchess Detention Center in California. In 2010, shortly after the Active Denial System was returned from Afghanistan, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced that a six-month pilot of this corrections tailored system was to be conducted at the jail. Before the pilot could begin, however, it was cancelled due in part to public opposition and concerns about the potential for abuse of the technology. It was also determined that the technology needed further evaluation before moving forward.
The most recent activity relative to Active Denial Systems came in September 2013 when the military conducted a demonstration of the maritime security application of the technology. The system was mounted aboard an Army landing craft utility vessel and it was the first time the system had actually been fired from aboard a ship. The system targeted other moving vessels in the water as they engaged in various reenacted scenarios involving hostile or unwanted actions. The objectives of maritime application of the technology would include defending against attacks by pirates boarding ships and other unauthorized encroaching boats. It could also provide defensive capabilities to protect critical infrastructure and high-asset military bases and vessels as well as oil and cargo ships.
As for corrections, the technology currently remains under review for possible future use in prison settings.