Less Lethal Technologies
Susan Zucker, Director Technology and Distance Education

What Are Less Lethal Technologies?

Less lethal (LL) technologies or weapons are developed to assist law enforcement, military and corrections personnel when lethal force is not appropriate, justified, or available for backup. LL technologies may subdue, confuse, delay, restrain, or incapacitate an aggressor in many different conditions such as prison disturbances, hostage rescues, and riots. Ostensibly, less lethal force will not cause injury to bystanders or life-threatening damage to property and environment. (Less-Lethal Technology Research Publications)

A subset of LL technology is nonlethal technology. Today the search for nonlethal weapons (NLW) is viewed as an effort to find tools or devices that subdue without harm. They are not considered weapons in the usual sense nor are they seen as alternatives to deadly force. LL devices are on the lower rungs of the use-of-force continuum while deadly force is at the top. LL is distinguished from nonlethal weapons in that the latter refers to devices that cannot cause death no matter how it is used. (Pilant, 1993)

The presence of the “CNN effect”, which puts great value on minimizing or eliminating casualties, particularly among non-combatants, suggests that NLW interventions should be developed for conventional warfare and law enforcement. Yet, there is a paucity of NLWs even though they would be beneficial. Use of NLWs are especially valuable when suspects and/or culprits are found among innocent people who outnumber the bad guys. In such instances, use of large-scale lethal force is undesirable.

Weapons that are used for law enforcement purposes as well as in war are referred to as dual-use weapons. There are many non-weapon technologies that are used this way. The implication is that the development of dual-use weapons should be coordinated and funded by all parties that gain from their use.

Types of LL Technologies

There are many types of LL technologies:
  1. Restraint devices include air bags, sticky foam, and chemical incapacitants such as alfentanyl and others.

  2. Distraction and disorientation devices include those that use light with best results yielded from strobe/pulsed light; goggles would be worn by users of this device. Another distraction/disorientation technology is OC (oleoresin capsicum), commonly known as pepper spray. OC has eclipsed the use of ortho/chlorobenzal-malononitrile and chloroacetophenone (CS/CN) sprays. Advantages over CS/CN is that it does not contaminate the patrol car or the officers, it can work on dogs, and it is more effective on individuals who are out of control whether from mental illness, drugs, or alcohol. OC occurs naturally and acts as an inflammatory while CS/CN is a chemical irritant. Still another distraction and disorientation device is the study of how the human body responds to various types of physical stimuli including susceptibility to sound, light, and ionizing and non-ionizing electromagnetic waves which can cause seizures which are disabling but not harmful. Crowd dispersement is accomplished by using chemical munitions such as smoke, CS/CN and OC, as well as foam rubber bats, stun guns, and batons.

  3. Vehicle interdiction devices are studied to safely stop a fleeing vehicle. They include combustion inhibitors or enhancers, electromagnetic pulses to destroy critical engine parts, access radio and microwave signals to confuse, interrupt or create false signals in the ignition and control sensor system and fogs which coat the windshield and impair driver visibility. Basically, vehicle interdiction studies mode of power, driver and environment. (Garwin, 1994, p. 6)

    Other LL technologies cause equipment to degrade through the use of supercaustics, grime from hell (when a tiny surface layer of paint or dust destroys the utility of a weapon until it can restored or cleaned), non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse, high-power microwave, and short-circuiting power distribution or switching systems. Inhibiting mobility devices is accomplished through use of slickum (antitraction technology), stickum (roach motels), jacks to puncture tires, sticky or hard foam to immobilize people, special compounds to alter combustion engines.

  4. Temporary incapacitation of personnel is done with laser weapons, flash-bang grenades or mines, irritants, anesthetics, and infrasound.

  5. Window breaking is done through sonic boom.

  6. Information warfare includes jamming communications and introducing computer viruses. (Garwin, 1994)

  7. Calmatives, a class of drugs that tend to produce a sedative or calming effect, are often referred to as chemical calmatives, calmative agents, calmative drugs, and chemical weapons. These agents could be considered for law enforcement applications, such as dispersing a crowd, controlling a riot, or calming a non-compliant offender. (Daggett, 2007) Calmatives were the subject of a Community Acceptance Panel (CAP) organized and convened by the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law (NCSTL) on April 30, 2007 in Washington, D.C.
NLW include those aimed like a rifle against specific antagonists (darts, laser blinding weapons, stickum) and those that affect a whole region or society. The first type affects bystanders less and in most cases causes less permanent damage. Therefore, the world populace and the United States find these solutions more politically acceptable than lethal weapons. It does not, however, resolve the question of legitimacy of interference in the activities of another state.

However, effective NLW can also be a problem to the United States as well as the rest of the world. For example, carbon fiber weapons which are launched by mortars and/or other means can short out power systems. This can be a strategic response by those under attack, or a terrorist act. If NLW are used by the U.S. or the forces of "good" in the world, they will be perfected and sold by arms merchants worldwide. If they are effective they will cause a problem unless the U.S. has appropriate countermeasures. “So perhaps even more than in the case of lethal weapons, there will be a measure, countermeasure, counter-countermeasure race.” (Garwin, 1994)

The development of NLW should be done in the same way as with lethal weapons, navigation systems, and other military technological R&D and procurement. There is a similar necessity for secrecy in many cases, but public discussion can focus on some specific or surrogate technologies-- slickum, stickum, irritant or anesthetic darts. (Garwin, 1994)

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and NLW / LL Technologies

Since 1985, LL and NLW research has been largely within the purview of the NIJ. The NIJ funds studies new technologies, initiates cooperative agreements and interagency agreements, and issues grants which focus on what is needed for law enforcement. NIJ seeks to understand the human health effects of LL devices, including chemical, kinetic energy, and conducted energy devices, which are designed to induce involuntary muscle contractions causing the subject to be temporarily incapacitated.

Additionally, there are many exciting new projects being explored. Some of these are: miniaturized video/sound communications systems, an over-and-under weapon that would have a LL technologies round and a lethal round in separate chambers, magnetic tagging devices, officer locators, use of miniaturized robots, and more.

Problems with LL Technologies and NLW

Stun guns, batons, and chemical agents have been abused in various settings. NIJ reports that as the number of law enforcement agencies using less lethal technologies, particularly stun guns, has increased, the number of deaths associated with this less-lethal technology also has increased. The public’s reaction to less lethal technologies technologies and NLW tends to be negative because of the reported abuses. NIJ has commissioned the study, titled "In-custody Deaths due to Conducted Energy Devices," to investigate whether the technology can contribute to or cause death and, if so, in what ways. (Less-Lethal Technology Research Publications)

Other Research Sponsored by NIJ

NIJ actively identifies, develops, and evaluates devices which potentially minimize risk of injury and death to the general public, law enforcement, prisoners, and suspects. NIJ's Less Lethal Technologies program researches less lethal weapons and vehicle-stopping technologies. (Less-Lethal Technology: Research on Conducted Energy Devices)

Research goals of the NIJ since 2003: Topics Currently Researched by NIJ References:

Baton Round: Less Lethal Weapon, Police: The Voice of the Service, January, 2005, (available at:

Boyd, D.G. NIJ’s Less-Than-Lethal Program: An Overview, NDIA Non-Lethal Defense V, March 26, 2002 (available at:

Daggett, M. Pharmacological Overview of Calmatives, It’s Evident, July, 2007, (available at:

Garwin, R.L. Chapter 5: New Applications of Nonlethal Applications of Nonlethal and Less Lethal Technology, American Assembly Book/Conference on "US Intervention in the Post-Cold War World: New Challenges and New Resources", Arden House, Harriman, NY, April 7-10, 1994.

NIJ, Less-Lethal Technology: Research on Conducted Energy Devices, (available at:

NIJ, Less Lethal Research Publications, (available at:

NIJ, NIJ In-Custody Death Study: The impact of use of conducted energy devices, (available at:

Pilant, L. Less-Than-Lethal Weapons: New Solutions for Law Enforcement, IACP Executive Brief, December, 1993, (available at:

Second Amended Complaint, Thomas v. Crosby, Civ. Action No. 3:04-cv-917-J-32TJC (M.D. Fla. Feb. 14, 2006).