This academic article was submitted by writer Lt. Chad Morris, POST Command College, Class 69.
It’s Sunday, 10 PM, and you are getting mentally prepared for the coming week as you get into bed and prepare to fall asleep. Suddenly you receive an urgent text message on your work phone.
The text message advises that you must respond immediately to a rapidly unfolding civil unrest incident at the State Capital in Sacramento. You are to respond directly to the command post located at 123 J Street. The text advises you to be prepared with your mobile field force gear and ready to deploy immediately.
You do your best to quickly switch gears from going to bed to imagining the potential dangers you are about to encounter. You work to get your mind right and control the adrenaline response that has just overwhelmed your nervous system. Finally, you calmly tell your wife that you got a call and need to head into the office, not wanting to scare her with the realities for which you are about to thrust yourself into.
While driving to the command post downtown, you recognize a sense of fear and anxiety clouding your mind. Fear that you will be forced into a controversial use-of-force situation. Anxiety, that strangers, who have no idea the realities and dangers of your job or the situation for which you have been called to serve, will judge you. You know that:
“‘A sizeable portion of the American public disapproves of police use-of-force in situations in which such action would be legally and professionally reasonable. The tension between the legal standards on one side, and the evolving and sometimes legally unreasonable expectations of the public on the other, makes the job of policing extremely difficult for front-line police officers,’ (Mourtgos & Adams, 2020).”
You have a sense of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
As you near the command post, you find yourself reflecting on Paul Harvey’s famous speech the “Policeman,” where he asserts:
“The police officer must know every gun, draw on the run, and hit where it doesn’t hurt. He must be able to whip two men twice his size and half his age without damaging his uniform and without being ‘brutal.’ If you hit him, he’s a coward. If he hits you, he’s a bully.”
“The consequences of comprised legitimacy are far-reaching, as citizens who view the police as illegitimate are less likely to obey the law, comply during encounters with the police, and cooperate as victims and witnesses. The paradox for police is to maintain control of encounters while also treating citizens with dignity and respect” (Terrill, et al., 2016).
You prepare yourself to be judged by those who have the benefit of questioning you from the comfort and security of their couch and through the lens of what their media and their politics believe is just and unjust.
You then flashback to the last time you were called to assist with riots at the state capital. You recall protestors throwing objects that had the potential to hurt or even kill you or a partner. You also recall rubber bullets being deployed to overcome one of the antagonists in the crowd. While this antagonist was clearly breaking the law and putting your life in danger, he later sued the city and the department because he felt the force was excessive.
The thought of losing your life and being civilly sued, and losing your home has you questioning what you have gotten yourself into. Is this the same profession you nobly signed up for? A profession that asks you to protect the rights of the very people who intend on doing you harm?
There has got to be another answer.
The fear and anxiety are building as you approach the J Street off-ramp and see plumes of smoke in the air and helicopters circling the warzone for which you are about to enter. As your adrenaline high begins to level, you find yourself in a daze. As your mind begins to wander, you envision a less-lethal technology that allows you to do your job and apply the exact level of force necessary to overcome resistance.
This technology would automatically identify furtive movements (pre-fight indicators) and assess the adversary’s biometrics to produce the precise level of force needed to overcome the resistance.
Effective Non-Lethal Alternatives
A 2022 Gallup Poll on policing reform revealed that 32% of adults want police stripped of lethal weapons and armed only with non-lethal alternatives.
“The development of future alternative weapons could reduce lethal force encounters and improve perceptions of racial disparity,” (Terrill & Paoline, 2017).
As modern-day technology continues to evolve, the presence of autonomous weapon systems is also evolving. With advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, weapons are being developed that remove some, or even all, of the decision-making from the human operator. The role of these autonomous weapons systems for use in domestic law enforcement, however, is the source of great controversy.
Autonomous weapons systems have enormous potential in police use of force applications and could dramatically reduce civil and criminal liability, and exposure to officers and their agencies.
However, public sentiment varies on whether or not this is a move in the right direction. On the one hand, taking the guesswork out of when to use force, and to what degree, seems like a welcomed advancement. On the other hand, many cannot comprehend a machine making decisions to use force on a human being.
At least one researcher has concluded that fully automated weapons systems (AWS) have no role in law enforcement.
“One of the problems presented by computer algorithms that determine when AWS will be allowed to release force is that they do so in advance, on the basis of hypotheticals, while there is no true and pressing emergency rendering such a far-reaching decision unavoidable. Even if it may be permissible in a real emergency to take far-reaching measures, it does not follow that such decisions can be taken in the abstract” (Heyns, 2016).
While automated decision-making technology provides great possibility, the lack of human input and a perceived lack of compassion and humanity inherent to these automated tools make their widespread implementation into domestic law enforcement challenging. Even considering the adverse perspectives, law enforcement should be focused on developing and adopting technology to help officers make better decisions, resulting in fewer fatalities. One weapons platform worth considering has already moved from science fiction to reality – lasers.
Lasers and Autonomous Weapons Systems for Policing
The development of laser technology for tactical applications has been viewed more as science fiction rather than a modern-day fact.
“However, more current developments have short-cut the process. Around 2018, Laser Pistols configured to give the appearance of rifles, or submachine-guns, like the Chinese ZKZM-500, made an appearance.” “[traveling at the speed of light]… no time of flight exists for it to hit a target. As soon as the trigger of the Laser weapon is pulled, the target has been engaged,” (Bunker, 2008a).
The United States military has been conducting testing on laser technology for many years. The intensity of these lasers can be adjusted to incapacitate a human or temporarily disable a vehicle. The testing of laser technology is still in its infancy, and most variants require large units that lack portability. However, it is likely that in the future, high-powered laser technology will be deployable in smaller devices similar to the size of a modern handgun. This alternative to firearms can result in better outcomes and far less lethality than when using a handgun to do the same job.
Additionally, advancements with “Smart Imaging Systems” that utilize AI technology are growing rapidly. Smart Imaging Systems using AI technology that assesses human behavior by analyzing biometric data and furtive movement in humans are in development and advancing at a rapid pace.
Research by the RAND Corporation indicates:
“Behavioral science has identified many nonverbal behaviors that are statistically associated with emotional and psychological state and with deception or violent intent. These can be roughly categorized into (1) kinetics (including gross motor movements) and (2) observation of physiological state” (Davis, et al., 2013).
AI technology that is programmed to scan the environment for these human “non-verbal pre-fight behaviors” is currently being tested in drone-based surveillance.
“Scientists have developed an experimental drone system that uses AI to detect violent actions in crowds. The team trained their machine learning algorithm to recognize a handful of typical violent motions (punching, kicking, shooting, and stabbing) and flag them when they appear in a drone’s camera view. The technology could theoretically detect a brawl that on-the-ground officers might miss or pinpoint the source of a gunshot” (Fingas, 2018).
Now more than ever, the law enforcement profession is ripe for adopting a new, effective, less-lethal technology that will increase officer safety and reduce unnecessary uses of force and the financially burdensome litigation that often follows. The merging of laser technology and AI-based Smart Imaging Systems could produce a non-lethal platform that takes the guesswork out of when and how much force an officer should use in a given violent encounter to overcome resistance. Additionally, blending a third technology, such as the Tracking Point Guided Trigger technology produced by Talon Precision Optics, into this hypothetical platform could ensure precision accuracy in all encounters.
The Tracking Point rifle scope has been aptly referred to as a shooting platform that cannot miss. Tracking Point technology uses computer processing and advanced optics to lock on targets—including moving targets—and correct for wind, humidity, Coriolis effect, rifle cant, cartridge weight, and even the absence of light. It even allows shooters to share their scope view in real-time with others via smartphone or tablet. According to Research Professor Drury Stevenson (2019), high-end models can:
“Hit a moving target in the dark at 1400 yards (about eight-tenths of a mile), even with an unskilled shooter. They also enable an operator at a remote location to fire the gun while another person merely carries it on location and points it toward the target”.
Stevenson, writing on the topic of smart guns, the law, and the Second Amendment, also noted that:
“Automated recording, memorializing, and archiving events for subsequent replay, which can enhance accountability (say, for police shootings of unarmed suspects) and justification, corroborating an otherwise disputable claim that a shooting was in self-defense.” Stevenson asserts that Tracking Point and similar AI technologies are potentially disruptive for the legal regime governing firearm possession and use, an area of law “already fraught with intense controversy” (Stevenson, 2019).
 See Talon Precision Optics’ “How It Works” page for details, at https://talonprecisionoptics.com/technology/how-it-works/
Ethical Challenges Using New Non-Lethal Technologies
The biggest challenges surrounding the use of smart, even autonomous weapons, are the impending ethical concerns. Most Americans cannot fathom the idea of a machine making the sole decision to use force on another human being. There would need to be extensive training to accompany the implementation of these technologies to overcome privacy concerns, abuses of power, and the reliability of facial recognition systems. Other considerations would include the system’s overall accuracy. What if the technology platform mistakenly interpreted a harmless gesture for an adversarial pre-fight indicator? A performance failure like this could have dire consequences for the platform and law enforcement, leading to a public outcry and banning this potentially valuable, less-lethal use of force tool.
Taking those concerns into consideration, the law enforcement profession would benefit significantly from their leaders advocating for additional research and development of autonomous weapons systems and laser technology in police field operations. Simultaneously developing transparent industrywide policies and procedures would help overcome privacy concerns and abuses of power. The police can embark on the development of this technology by utilizing available grant funding for research and development and working with their local political leaders and private sector technology development firms interested in exploring this promising new technology that could revolutionize how police use force to overcome resistance. A future with fewer shots fired and far fewer inadvertent misses to stop an adversary intent on harming the officer or another person outweighs concerns as long as necessary safeguards on their deployment and use are developed. Creating a foundation for those safeguards now is an excellent first step.
As you arrive at the command post, you imagine a world where new, cutting-edge, less-lethal technology exists, is readily available to law enforcement, and has full community and law enforcement support based on its effectiveness and proven level of safety. You envision laser technology, akin to Star Wars, paired with an AI sighting system that can analyze biometrics and furtive movements and identify threats before they materialize. A laser that, when fired, automatically adjusts its intensity to the precise level of non-lethal force needed to overcome the encountered resistance. You realize that such an effective tool could revolutionize the current use of force conundrum, stop claims of excessive force and potentially raise public sentiment on policing to all-time highs. As you approach the command post, you force yourself out of this sleep-deprived state of Pollyanna nonsense and force yourself to get your mind right.
Suddenly, you hear the distant sound of what you believe is a wind chime. As the seconds pass, the chime becomes louder and louder. Finally, your body begins to shake, and you slowly open your eyes. You are startled to see your wife lying next to you, pushing your body back and forth. She looks concerned and tells you that your wake-up alarm went off and she was concerned you would be late for work. You suddenly realize this was all just a dream, and you had not actually responded to the riots. As you transition out of your deep dream state, relieved, well-rested and inspired, you envision a world where technology provides the answer to the future of use of force encounters. A country where this technological advancement puts an end to negative public sentiment related to media sensationalized use of force incidents throughout the nation.
Bunker, R.J. Lindsay, D. 2008a Laser Weapons. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Volume 77. Number 4 (April).
Davis, P.K., Perry, W.L., Brown, R.A., Yeung, D., Roshan, P.K., & Voorhies, P. (2013). Using Behavioral Indicators to Help Detect Potential Violent Acts: A Review of the Science Base.
Fingas, J. F. (2018). Experimental drone uses AI to spot violence in crowds. Engadget. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.engadget.com/2018-06-06-drones-use-ai-to-spot-violence-in-crowds.html
Heyns. (2016). Human Rights and the use of Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS) During Domestic Law Enforcement. Human Rights Quarterly, 38(2), 350–378. https://doi.org/10.1353/hrq.2016.0034
Mourtgos, & Adams, I. T. (2020). Assessing Public Perceptions of Police Use-of-Force: Legal Reasonableness and Community Standards. Justice Quarterly, 37(5), 869–899. https://doi.org/10.1080/07418825.2019.1679864
Stevenson, D. D. (2019). Smart guns, the law, and the Second Amendment. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3500570
Terrill, Paoline, E. A., & Gau, J. M. (2016). Three Pillars of Police Legitimacy: Procedural Justice, Use-of-force, and Occupational Culture. The Politics of Policing: Between Force and Legitimacy, 21, 59–76. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1521-613620160000021004
Terrill, & Paoline, E. A. (2017). Police Use of Less Lethal Force: Does Administrative Policy Matter? Justice Quarterly, 34(2), 193–216.
About the writer:
Lieutenant Chad Morris has worked in law enforcement for 15 years. Prior to law enforcement, he began his professional career as a serial entrepreneur in the private sector, founding businesses in the real estate, finance, and specialty food sectors. He has worked numerous assignments throughout his law enforcement career, including patrol, detectives, high-tech crimes forensic investigator, S.W.A.T operator, public information officer (PIO), problem-oriented policing (POP), and professional standards and training/internal affairs.
Lieutenant Chad Morris has a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) Degree from the University of California, Davis, and a Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) Degree from the Texas A&M University.
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