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Heat beam riot control device gets ACLU pressure

The ACLU is calling the Raytheon device “torture”

By Frank Quaratiello
The Boston Herald

LOS ANGELES — An “invisible heat-beam weapon” developed by Raytheon Co. for the military is being called “tantamount to torture” by the ACLU as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department prepares to install a scaled-down version in a jail dormitory next month to curb inmate assaults.

In a letter to Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called the Assault Intervention Device - which focuses a softball-sized beam that makes inmates feel “intolerable heat” - a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But Commander Bob Osborne of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said the ACLU needs to weigh the new device against the jail’s current methods of intervening in inmate assaults such as using batons, Tasers, pepper spray, tear gas or firing rubber bullets.

The new device, according to Osborne and Raytheon, penetrates only 1/64th of an inch into the skin, causing “controllable pain” but no injury. As soon as the heat beam is switched off, the pain stops, they say, leaving no lasting burns or physical damage.

The test device’s range is 85 feet, compared to 800 feet for the truck-mounted Active Denial System developed for the military.

In its letter, the ACLU questions that conclusion, citing a case when the military version of the device was miscalibrated and burned five airmen and a 2008 report by an expert who said the device could cause lasting burns.

But Osborne dismissed the ACLU challenge, saying that the sheriff department’s device is simpler and not harmful.

“There are people who distrust anything government does and think police are vicious and want to hurt people,” said Osborne, adding that he has been zapped by the ray beam 50 to 60 times during testing and likens the experience to the heat a person feels when opening a hot oven. “We don’t want to hurt people. This is much more humane than the alternatives.”

Osborne added that, since the device curbs unruly behavior without causing permanent injury, it will save taxpayers the cost of hospital bills and other expenses that sometimes result from the current law enforcement response to inmate uprisings.

In Massachusetts, Bristol County’s outspoken law-and-order Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said he’s “open to the new technology” as long as the price isn’t exorbitant. The test device cost $750,000, paid for by a Department of Justice grant.

Hodgson added that he’d like to do more research and see how it works in Los Angeles County first, but that Bristol County is smaller and has fewer uprisings so it wouldn’t make a good test site.

A Raytheon spokesman said the smaller “directed energy” device, which is manufactured in Arizona by the company’s missile systems division, is just in the prototype stage, but a successful test in Los Angeles County could open new markets for the firm.

“Law enforcement doesn’t have research and development,” said Osborne, who has overseen technology for the sheriff department for more than two years. “We look to other organizations, like the military, for improvements to solve the problems we have.”

Copyright 2010 Boston Herald Inc.