Thursday, July 9, 2009

A small technology firm is touting a new laser dazzler that temporarily blinds and disorients its target as the “ultimate in nonlethal technology,” but its efforts to sell the weapon to law enforcement agencies are likely to prove controversial.

The manufacturer says the weapon is ideal for riot and crowd control, for personal protection, and as an alternative to single-shot nonlethal weapons like the Taser high-voltage electric-dart gun. However, laser dazzlers used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused eye injuries to troops — including at least one case of blindness — in accidents or so-called “friendly fire” incidents. Some experts are concerned about the safety implications of putting the weapons in the hands of police officers.

Mercerville, N.J.-based Laser Energetics Inc. says its Dazer Laser weapons are designed to be “eye-safe,” according to founder and Chief Executive Robert Battis.

“We spent a lot of money to make it eye-safe. Safety is the most important thing to us,” Mr. Battis told The Washington Times. He said the device conforms to American National Standards Institute-approved benchmarks.

“The effects are temporary. … You have to be staring at it for a while to do any [permanent] damage.”

Laser dazzlers work by overloading the optical nerve, “like the flash from a camera,” Mr. Battis said, causing temporary blindness, disorientation and nausea.

He said the laser was a better option than other nonlethal weapons used for personal protection or crowd control by law enforcement.

“Unlike tear gas or water cannon, it is very precise” and can be used against particular individuals in a crowd, whereas “pepper spray, billy clubs or high-voltage darts only work at close ranges,” Mr. Battis said.

“The closer the range, the greater the danger” to the officer and the target because of the increased likelihood that lethal force might have to be used if nonlethal options fail, he said. “This will be a lifesaver … both for the threat and the enforcer.”

Mr. Battis said he expects to be able to announce “a very large order” for the Dazer Laser this month.

The U.S. military uses modified laser target designators as dazzlers in Iraq and Afghanistan - one of a number of alternatives to immediately shooting at individuals who may not be hostile.

Nonlethal weapons like dazzlers “give war fighters crucial escalation-of-force options between shouting and shooting,” for instance at a vehicle checkpoint, said Kelley Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, based in Quantico, Va.

She said troops used the dazzlers to warn and/or incapacitate drivers who may not have seen or heard warning signals or shouts.

“They help minimize casualties and collateral damage across a full spectrum of military operations - everything from full-scale combat to humanitarian and disaster-relief missions,” Ms. Hughes said.

She said nonlethal weapons were especially useful in counterinsurgency campaigns such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, “which brings combat into crowded urban areas and villages” where winning hearts and minds was crucial to military success.

However, the devices have caused dozens of eye injuries to U.S. troops, including at least one case of permanent blindness, according to the Pentagon newspaper Stars and Stripes.

“Any weapon is potentially dangerous, even ones designed to be nonlethal,” Noah Shachtman, a defense technology expert and blogger for Wired magazine told The Times. “Training is key; if troops think these weapons are basically harmless, they aren’t likely to use them with appropriate care.”

“Safety and training is always paramount, for both service members and for local civilian populations,” Ms. Hughes agreed. She added that there had been “very few reported injuries” and that the safety of the weapons was kept under review by a slew of different advisory panels, review boards and working groups.

She pointed out that U.S. forces had begun to retrofit some laser dazzlers with a special safety control module, which automatically reduced or shut off their power if their targets were too close.

Mr. Battis said that unlike some of the systems currently used by the military, the Dazer Laser was specifically designed as a nonlethal dazzler, not modified from pre-existing technology designed for target designation.

He said the design of the weapon made them safer for the target than alternatives like high-voltage darts, which, according to an ACLU report last year, have killed more than 280 people since 2001 and have been the subject of numerous lawsuits.

“This is a very powerful tool which will help law enforcement to avoid some of the legal problems they’ve had with other nonlethal technologies,” Mr. Battis said. Still, he acknowledged that there were likely to be legal challenges to their use.

“Will there be lawsuits? Sure. You have to be concerned about that,” he said.

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