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Crazy Crowd Control: Non Lethal Weapons Used By Police To Quell Protests

Photo courtesy of Lilian Wagdy via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Whether justified or not, riots and protests happen in the heat of civilian frenzy and unrest. How they’re handled is another story, told in large part by the actions and tools of police forces.

As technology improves, so does the capability of the police to control crowds–here are the different techniques and technologies utilized.

Protection: Helmets, shields, and tanks

Typically, police wear defensive gear when dealing with large riots, demonstrations, and protests. This includes riot helmets, face visors, body armor, riot shields, and even gas masks.

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Photo courtesy of the US Army via Flickr.

This type of equipment is designed to protect wearers from hurled objects, shield all vulnerable parts of the body from assault, and prevent theft of any emergency sidearms. Officers may also use armed vehicles, tanks, or mounted police.

In the United States, this equipment is often military surplus from the Department of Defense through the Law Enforcement Support Office, which equips local (and not militarily trained) officers with vehicles, gear, and weapons previously only seen in combat zones.

Non-lethal, less-than-lethal weapons

Up until the the mid to late 20th century, traditional riot control methods used by police were variants of batons and whips, or even the firing of live ammunition into crowds. Blunt-force weapons vary from country to country, from India’s lathi, a cane with a blunt metal tip, to the African sjambok, a heavy leather or plastic whip.

In America, the need for better, non-lethal (also called less-than-lethal weapons) was voiced by (pdf) the Non-lethality Policy Review Group at U.S. Global Strategy Council in Washington and other global think tanks in the 1980s, prompting Congress and other governments to prioritize their research and development.

Here’s a selection of some of the many non-lethal weapons that have been used, or are being designed for crowd control.

1. Tear gas and pepper spray: Tear gas, first used in WWI, was banned in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993–signed by most nations including the United States.

In spite of this, along with research stating its ill effects, tear gas has still been used frequently against civilians all over the world, including Egypt and Turkey. Even more recently, it has been used against protesters and journalists in Ferguson, Missouri in the United States.

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Photo courtesy of the US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

Mace and pepper spray have been used to equally controversial effect A study of fatalities found that an estimated one person dies for every 600 times pepper spray is used by police.

2. Active Denial Systems (ADS): Essentially an open-air microwave oven, this weapon projects beams of radiation to heat the skin of its targets to 130 degrees, forcing them to flee.


The device was tested in Afghanistan, before being recalled, modified, and tested instead in American prisons. The ACLU has called it “tantamount to torture.” According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Active Denial Technology is in development for future use.

3. Net guns: Traditionally used to capture wildlife, guns that shoot and ensnare people in nets have also been adopted by some police forces to catch targets as a form of riot control.

4. Sticky foam: Slimy and adhesive foam that immobilizes individuals was first tested in 1995, but suspended in use for several reasons: the goop made it hard to arrest people, and could be lethal when covering the mouth and nose.

5. Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD): Also called a “sound cannon,” the LRAD focuses and broadcasts sound at decibel levels up to 162 (a normal conversation is about 60) to warn or disperse protesters.

Developed in 2000, the LRAD first made headlines when it was used in the U.S. against protesters in Pittsburgh, and has been sold to 60 countries including Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Poland.

6. Speech Jamming Gun: In Japan, a crowd control device known as the “speech jammer” was unveiled in 2012. The device, when aimed at rioters, is designed to repeat their words at a slight delay, tripping them up and essentially silencing them.

7. Sleep gas: Though also prohibited in war by the convention that condemned tear gas, sleep gases made up of the anesthesia fentanyl were used in 2002 by Russia on Chechen rebels in Moscow. About 117 of the civilian hostages died from effects of the gas.

The U.S. has also reportedly studied incapacitating gas as a crowd control method, and nerve gas was considered in the UK as recently as 2012.

8. Stun grenades: Formally named XM84 and also called a flashbang, this U.S. military weapon (pdf) emits a bang of 170-180 decibels and a blinding flash when detonated, designed primarily for hostage rescue and room clearing by the army.

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Photo courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons.

Along with tear gas, stun grenades have been used by police forces to quell protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

9. MEDUSA: With its mythical acronym standing for Mob Excess Deference Using Silent Audio, MEDUSA is essentially a microwave ray gun that causes a shockwave inside the skull, irritating and nauseating those exposed.

Designed by WaveBand Corporation in 2003-2004, the Navy-funded project was reported to be seeking funding from the US Department of Defense in 2008.

10. Water canons: First used for riot control in Germany in the 1930s, water canons were also used widely in the United States in the 1960s but have since fallen out of favor.

More recently, pink and purple dye has been added to water canons so that protesters can be identified and later arrested in countries like Hungary, Indonesia, Uganda, India, and Israel.

11. Taser shotgun: If tasers weren’t already enough, the Taser Shockwave shoots six different electrical charges at once to target crowds rather than individuals.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Rubber and plastic bullets, skunk bombs, dazzling lasers, mace and paintball equipped drones, and other non-lethal riot control devices have been developed or deployed, sparking controversy regarding the use of excessive force on the unarmed.

This article was originally published on 9/2/2014.

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