Stephen Coleman: The moral dangers of non-lethal weapons
Pepper spray and tasers are in increasing use by both police and military, and more exotic non-lethal weapons such as heat rays are in the works. In this talk, ethicist Stephen Coleman explores the unexpected consequences of their introduction and asks some challenging questions. (Filmed at TEDxCanberra.)
Stephen Coleman - Ethicist
Stephen Coleman studies applied ethics, particularly the ethics of military and police force, and their application to human rights. Full bio
What I want to talk to you about today
is some of the problems that the military of the Western world --
Australia, United States, U.K. and so on --
face in some of the deployments
that they're dealing with in the modern world at this time.
If you think about the sorts of things
that we've sent Australian military personnel to in recent years,
we've got obvious things like Iraq and Afghanistan,
but you've also got things like East Timor
and the Solomon Islands and so on.
And a lot of these deployments
that we're actually sending military personnel to these days
aren't traditional wars.
In fact, a lot of the jobs
that we're asking the military personnel to do in these situations
are ones that, in their own countries, in Australia, the United States and so on,
would actually be done by police officers.
And so there's a bunch of problems that come up
for military personnel in these situations,
because they're doing things that they haven't really been trained for,
and they're doing things
that those who do them in their own countries
are trained very differently for
and equipped very differently for.
Now there's a bunch of reasons why
we actually do send military personnel
rather than police to do these jobs.
If Australia had to send a thousand people tomorrow
to West Papua for example,
we don't have a thousand police officers hanging around
that could just go tomorrow
and we do have a thousand soldiers that could go.
So when we have to send someone, we send the military --
because they're there, they're available
and, heck, they're used to going off and doing these things
and living by themselves
and not having all this extra support.
So they are able to do it in that sense.
But they aren't trained in the same way that police officers are
and they're certainly not equipped in the same way police officers are.
And so this has raised a bunch of problems for them
when dealing with these sorts of issues.
One particular thing that's come up
that I am especially interested in
is the question of whether,
when we're sending military personnel to do these sorts of jobs,
we ought to be equipping them differently,
and in particular, whether we ought to be giving them access
to some of the sorts of non-lethal weapons that police have.
Since they're doing some of these same jobs,
maybe they should have some of those things.
And of course, there's a range of places
where you'd think those things would be really useful.
So for example, when you've got military checkpoints.
If people are approaching these checkpoints
and the military personnel there are unsure
whether this person's hostile or not.
Say this person approaching here,
and they say, "Well is this a suicide bomber or not?
Have they got something hidden under their clothing? What's going to happen?"
They don't know whether this person's hostile or not.
If this person doesn't follow directions,
then they may end up shooting them
and then find out afterward
either, yes, we shot the right person,
or, no, this was just an innocent person
who didn't understand what was going on.
So if they had non-lethal weapons
then they would say, "Well we can use them in that sort of situation.
If we shoot someone who wasn't hostile,
at least we haven't killed them."
This photo is actually from one of the missions
in the Balkans in the late 1990s.
Situation's a little bit different
where perhaps they know someone who's hostile,
where they've got someone shooting at them
or doing something else that's clearly hostile, throwing rocks, whatever.
But if they respond, there's a range of other people around,
who are innocent people who might also get hurt --
be collateral damage that the military often doesn't want to talk about.
So again, they would say, "Well if we have access to non-lethal weapons,
if we've got someone we know is hostile,
we can do something to deal with them
and know that if we hit anyone else around the place,
at least, again, we're not going to kill them."
Another suggestion has been,
since we're putting so many robots in the field,
we can see the time coming
where they're actually going to be sending robots out in the field that are autonomous.
They're going to make their own decisions about who to shoot and who not to shoot
without a human in the loop.
And so the suggestion is, well hey,
if we're going to send robots out and allow them to do this,
maybe it would be a good idea, again, with these things
if they were armed with non-lethal weapons
so that if the robot makes a bad decision and shoots the wrong person,
again, they haven't actually killed them.
Now there's a whole range of different sorts of non-lethal weapons,
some of which are obviously available now,
some of which they're developing.
So you've got traditional things like pepper spray,
O.C. spray up at the top there,
or Tasers over here.
The one on the top right here is actually a dazzling laser
intended to just blind the person momentarily
and disorient them.
You've got non-lethal shotgun rounds
that contain rubber pellets
instead of the traditional metal ones.
And this one in the middle here, the large truck,
is actually called the Active Denial System --
something the U.S. military is working on at the moment.
It's essentially a big microwave transmitter.
It's sort of your classic idea of a heat ray.
It goes out to a really long distance,
compared to any of these other sorts of things.
And anybody who is hit with this
feels this sudden burst of heat
and just wants to get out of the way.
It is a lot more sophisticated than a microwave oven,
but it is basically boiling the water molecules
in the very surface level of your skin.
So you feel this massive heat,
and you go, "I want to get out of the way."
And they're thinking, well this will be really useful
in places like where we need to clear a crowd out of a particular area,
if the crowd is being hostile.
If we need to keep people away from a particular place,
we can do that with these sorts of things.
So obviously there's a whole range of different sorts
of non-lethal weapons we could give military personnel
and there's a whole range of situations
where they're looking a them and saying, "Hey, these things could be really useful."
But as I said,
the military and the police
are very different.
Yes, you don't have to look very hard at this
to recognize the fact that they might be very different.
the attitude to the use of force
and the way they're trained to use force
is especially different.
The police --
and knowing because I've actually helped to train police --
police, in particular Western jurisdictions at least,
are trained to de-escalate force,
to try and avoid using force
and to use lethal force
only as an absolute last resort.
Military personnel are being trained for war,
so they're trained that, as soon as things go bad,
their first response is lethal force.
The moment the fecal matter hits the rotating turbine,
you can start shooting at people.
So their attitudes
to the use of lethal force are very different,
and I think it's fairly obvious
that their attitude to the use of non-lethal weapons
would also be very different from what it is with the police.
And since we've already had so many problems
with police use of non-lethal weapons in various ways,
I thought it would be a really good idea to look at some of those things
and try to relate it to the military context.
And I was really surprised when I started to do this,
to see that, in fact,
even those people who were advocating the use of non-lethal weapons by the military
hadn't actually done that.
They generally seem to think,
"Well, why would we care what's happened with the police?
We're looking at something different,"
and didn't seem to recognize, in fact,
they were looking at pretty much the same stuff.
So I actually started to investigate some of those issues
and have a look
at the way that police use non-lethal weapons when they're introduced
and some of the problems that might arise
out of those sorts of things
when they actually do introduce them.
And of course, being Australian,
I started looking at stuff in Australia,
knowing, again, from my own experience about various times
when non-lethal weapons have been introduced in Australia.
So one of the things I particularly looked at
was the use of O.C. spray,
oleoresin capsicum spray, pepper spray,
by Australian police
and seeing when that had been introduced, what had happened
and those sorts of issues.
And one study that I found,
a particularly interesting one,
was actually in Queensland,
because they had a trial period for the use of pepper spray
before they actually introduced it more broadly.
And I went and had a look at some of the figures here.
Now when they introduced O.C. spray in Queensland,
they were really explicit.
The police minister had a whole heap of public statements made about it.
They were saying, "This is explicitly intended
to give police an option
between shouting and shooting.
This is something they can use instead of a firearm
in those situations where they would have previously had to shoot someone."
So I went and looked at all of these police shooting figures.
And you can't actually find them very easily
for individual Australian states.
I could only find these ones.
This is from a Australian Institute of Criminology report.
As you can see from the fine print, if you can read it at the top:
"Police shooting deaths" means not just people who have been shot by police,
but people who have shot themselves in the presence of police.
But this is the figures across the entire country.
And the red arrow represents the point
where Queensland actually said,
"Yes, this is where we're going to give all police officers across the entire state
access to O.C. spray."
So you can see there were six deaths sort of leading up to it
every year for a number of years.
There was a spike, of course, a few years before,
but that wasn't actually Queensland.
Anyone know where that was? Wasn't Port Arthur, no.
Victoria? Yes, correct.
That spike was all Victoria.
So it wasn't that Queensland had a particular problem
with deaths from police shootings and so on.
So six shootings across the whole country,
fairly consistently over the years before.
So the next two years were the years they studied -- 2001, 2002.
Anyone want to take a stab at the number of times,
given how they've introduced this,
the number of times police in Queensland used O.C. spray in that period?
Hundreds? One, three.
Thousand is getting better.
as an alternative to the use of lethal force --
an alternative between shouting and shooting.
I'm going to go out on a limb here
and say that if Queensland police didn't have O.C. spray,
they wouldn't have shot 2,226 people
in those two years.
In fact, if you have a look
at the studies that they were looking at,
the material they were collecting and examining,
you can see the suspects were only armed
in about 15 percent of cases
where O.C. spray was used.
It was routinely being used in this period,
and, of course, still is routinely used --
because there were no complaints about it,
not within the context of this study anyway --
it was routinely being used
to deal with people who were violent,
who were potentially violent,
and also quite frequently used
to deal with people who were simply
This person is not doing anything violent,
but they just won't do what we want them to.
They're not obeying the directions that we're giving them,
so we'll give them a shot of the O.C. spray.
That'll speed them up. Everything will work out better that way.
This was something explicitly introduced
to be an alternative to firearms,
but it's being routinely used
to deal with a whole range
of other sorts of problems.
Now one of the particular issues that comes up
with military use of non-lethal weapons --
and people when they're actually saying, "Well hey, there might be some problems" --
there's a couple of particular problems that get focused on.
One of those problems
is that non-lethal weapons may be used indiscriminately.
One of the fundamental principles of military use of force
is that you have to be discriminate.
You have to be careful about who you're shooting at.
So one of the problems that's been suggested with non-lethal weapons
is that they might be used indiscriminately --
that you use them against a whole range of people
because you don't have to worry so much anymore.
And in fact, one particular instance
where I think that actually happens where you can look at it
was the Dubrovka Theatre siege in Moscow in 2002,
which probably a lot of you, unlike most of my students at ADFA,
are actually old enough to remember.
So Chechens had come in and taken control of the theater.
They were holding something like 700 people hostage.
They'd released a bunch of people,
but they still had about 700 people hostage.
And the Russian special military police,
special forces, Spetsnaz,
came in and actually stormed the theater.
And the way they did it was to pump the whole thing full of anesthetic gas.
And it turned out
that lots of these hostages actually died
as a result of inhaling the gas.
It was used indiscriminately.
They pumped the whole theater full of the gas.
And it's no surprise that people died,
because you don't know how much of this gas
each person is going to inhale,
what position they're going to fall in
when they become unconscious and so on.
There were, in fact, only a couple of people who got shot
in this episode.
So when they had a look at it afterward,
there were only a couple of people
who'd apparently been shot by the hostage takers
or shot by the police forces
coming in and trying to deal with the situation.
Virtually everybody that got killed
got killed from inhaling the gas.
The final toll of hostages
is a little unclear,
but it's certainly a few more than that,
because there were other people who died over the next few days.
So this was one particular problem they talked about,
that it might be used indiscriminately.
Second problem that people sometimes talk about
with military use of non-lethal weapons,
and it's actually the reason why in the chemical weapons convention,
it's very clear that you can't use riot control agents
as a weapon of warfare,
the problem with that is that it's seen that sometimes
non-lethal weapons might actually be used, not as an alternative to lethal force,
but as a lethal force multiplier --
that you use non-lethal weapons first
so that your lethal weapons will actually be more effective.
The people you're going to be shooting at
aren't going to be able to get out of the way.
They're not going to be aware of what's happening and you can kill them better.
And in fact, that's exactly what happened here.
The hostage takers who had been rendered unconscious by the gas
were not taken into custody,
they were simply shot in the head.
So this non-lethal weapon
was being used, in fact, in this case
as a lethal force multiplier
to make killing more effective
in this particular situation.
Another problem that I just want to quickly mention
is that there's a whole heap of problems
with the way that people actually get taught
to use non-lethal weapons
and get trained about them and then get tested and so on.
Because they get tested in nice, safe environments.
And people get taught to use them in nice, safe environments
like this, where you can see exactly what's going on.
The person who's spraying the O.C. spray is wearing a rubber glove
to make sure they don't get contaminated and so on.
But they don't ever get used like that.
They get used out in the real world,
like in Texas, like this.
I confess, this particular case
was actually one that piqued my interest in this.
It happened while I was working as a research fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy.
And news reports started coming up about this situation
where this woman was arguing with the police officer.
She wasn't violent.
In fact, he was probably six inches taller than me,
and she was about this tall.
And eventually she said to him
"Well I'm going to get back in my car."
And he says, "If you get back into your car, I'm going to tase you."
And she says, "Oh, go ahead. Tase me." And so he does.
And it's all captured by the video camera
running in the front of the police car.
So she's 72,
and it's seen that this is the most appropriate way of dealing with her.
And other examples of the same sorts of things
with other people where you think
where you think, "Is this really an appropriate way to use non-lethal weapons?"
"Police chief fires Taser into 14 year-old girl's head."
"She was running away. What else was I suppose to do?"
"Police Taser six year-old boy at elementary school."
And they clearly learned a lot from it
because in the same district,
"Police review policy after children shocked:
2nd child shocked by Taser stun gun within weeks."
Same police district.
Another child within weeks of Tasering the six year-old boy.
Just in case you think
it's only going to happen in the United States,
it happened in Canada as well.
And a colleague of mine
sent me this one from London.
But my personal favorite of these ones, I have to confess,
does actually come from the United States:
"Officers Taser 86 year-old disabled woman in her bed."
I checked the reports on this one.
I looked at it. I was really surprised.
Apparently she took up a more threatening position in her bed.
I kid you not. That's exactly what it said.
"She took up a more threatening position in her bed."
But I'd remind you what I'm talking about,
I'm talking about military uses of non-lethal weapons.
So why is this relevant?
Because police are actually more restrained in the use of force
than the military are.
They're trained to be more restrained in the use of force than the military are.
They're trained to think more, to try and de-escalate.
So if you have these problems with police officers with non-lethal weapons,
what on earth would make you think
it's going to be better with military personnel?
The last thing that I would just like to say,
when I'm talking to the police
about what a perfect non-lethal weapon would look like,
they almost inevitably say the same thing.
They say, "Well, it's got to be something that's nasty enough
that people don't want to be hit with this weapon.
So if you threaten to use it,
people are going to comply with it,
but it's also going to be something
that doesn't leave any lasting effects."
In other words, your perfect non-lethal weapon
is something that's perfect for abuse.
What would these guys have done
if they'd had access to Tasers
or to a manned, portable version
of the Active Denial System --
a small heat ray that you can use on people
and not worry about it.
So I think, yes, there may be ways
that non-lethal weapons are going to be great in these situations,
but there's also a whole heap of problems
that need to be considered as well.
Thanks very much.
About the Speaker:Stephen Coleman - Ethicist
Stephen Coleman studies applied ethics, particularly the ethics of military and police force, and their application to human rights.
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More profile about the speaker
Dr. Stephen Coleman is Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Leadership and Vincent Fairfax Foundation Fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW@ADFA.
Coleman works in a diverse range of areas in applied ethics, including military ethics, police ethics, medical ethics, and the practical applications of human rights. He has published and presented in various forms in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Hong Kong. He recently spent an academic year as the Resident Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the United States Naval Academy, where he was part of a large research project examining the ethical implications of various new and developing military technologies. This project helped to brief the Department of Defense, the US Congress and the White House on these issues.
He can also make balloon and origami animals, juggle, breathe fire and ride a unicycle, though not all at the same time.
Stephen Coleman | Speaker | TED.com