The Out-of-Control Spread of Crowd-Control Tech

NonLethal sells a range of tear-gas canisters, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets. The company also offers its own version of a Venom-like weapon, a multi-launcher called the IronFist, designed “to rapidly deploy a blanket of less lethal munitions into, or over, a hostile crowd.”

Like manufacturers of firearms, Combined Systems and NonLethal Technologies have federal firearm licenses and federal explosive licenses. However, there is no federal regulation that distinguishes lethal from less-lethal firearms, and all firearms are exempted from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. When Combined Systems and NonLethal Technologies market their weapons as less lethal, there are no regulatory structures to ensure the reduced lethality of their products. They face no stipulations on the chemical makeup of their patented tear-gas recipes or other chemical irritants, for example, or safety guidelines on the speed and accuracy of the projectiles they develop.

Nor, for that matter, are there any federal guidelines on how less-lethals should be used by police in the line of duty. In the absence of such rules, individual law enforcement agencies have developed their own protocols. Activity that could get you shot with a rubber bullet in one city might not in another. 

The landscape outside the US is similarly piecemeal. In lieu of international agreements specifically regulating the manufacture, sale, and use of less-lethals, the United Nations published the Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement in 2020. The document doesn’t have anything to say about best practices for manufacturing and sales, and instead focuses on establishing use-of-force guidelines. It is also completely nonbinding.

Talk to many law enforcement officers and they’ll tell you that less-lethal weapons are a saving grace that keep demonstrations from becoming even bloodier. At the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Bob Swartzwelder, president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police, argued that without tools like tear gas and rubber bullets, “the police would be forced to [do] what you saw in the ’68 riots in Chicago, along with canines biting individuals, swinging of batons.” Swartzwelder’s stance was echoed by police chiefs around the US. 

But in fact, history offers another alternative to the brutal police tactics employed in Chicago, Birmingham, and on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma during the 1960s. Those displays of violence sparked a presidential commission, which in turn gave rise to a newer model of protest policing—sometimes called “negotiated management”—that would hold sway in many US departments for decades. Under that model, police set out to preserve both public safety and demonstrators’ First Amendment rights; officers announced what they would and wouldn’t tolerate from protesters and described how they’d respond if those lines were crossed. At times, they’d even plan arrests with protest organizers in advance.

Then in 1999, at the Seattle WTO protests, a group of demonstrators rejected the “choreographed” plan for the march and broke through police barricades, and police chief Norm Stamper approved the indiscriminate use of tear gas and other less-lethals. Scenes from the melee dominated the news, and the “negotiated management” model was widely understood to have broken down. Stamper would come to regret his decision, calling it “the worst mistake of my career. We used chemical agents … against nonviolent and essentially nonthreatening protesters.” But across the US, negotiated management fell out of favor, and reliance on less-lethals has increased.


Author: showrunner