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Law enforcement's tech tester

Cdr. Charles "Sid" Heal of the LA Sheriff's Department is the go-to guy for cutting-edge gadgets that may someday shape police work. Photos: High-tech crime fighting

Not every police department has its own R&D unit.

In fact, most don't have the time, funds, or personnel to dedicate to trying out high-tech gadgets that may or may not pan out. That's why Sid Heal of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has become a go-to guy for law enforcement agencies around the country that want to know what's on the cutting edge and whether it might actually work in the real world.

Cdr. Charles "Sid" Heal heads up the department's technology exploration program, which for a decade has been doing hands-on evaluations of gadgets and has been working with entrepreneurs, defense contractors, and federal agencies on tech fresh from the drawing board. While the scope of the program is more or less wide open, a primary focus is on what Heal calls "nonlethal options"--gear that can be used in place of traditional weapons and high-risk procedures.

A case in point is the heat-spewing Active Denial System, a Buck Rogers-esque directed-energy technology.

In brief, ADS uses millimeter waves to create an intense, but short-lived, burning sensation in people on the receiving end. The Defense Department regularly touts it as a near-ideal nonlethal weapon that soldiers could use in tense crowd control situations overseas in lieu of firing bullets.

Heal, for one, sees it as holding promise for use in quelling domestic street disturbances without the risk of injury that comes with lower-tech alternatives such as beanbag projectiles. For the time being, however, ADS remains in prototype limbo.

Heal brings to his job some three decades of experience in law enforcement, with a focus on special and emergency operations, along with roughly the same amount of time in the Marine Corps Reserve, from which he recently retired. He spoke recently with CNET about key areas for technology exploration, from ADS and car-stopping gadgetry to high-powered loudspeakers and remote-controlled aerial drones.

Q: Could you describe basically what the mission of the technology exploration program is?
Heal: The mission is pretty simple, and that is, it's looking for technological solutions to problems of law enforcement. Law enforcement has historically solved problems with procedures rather than technology. Probably the best example that people would be aware of would be pursuit. Rather than demanding the technology to stop fleeing suspects, we simply limit the circumstances under which we are allowed to chase them.

So we actually go out there and attempt to identify, exploit, develop, integrate, and adapt technologies that may have some application in law enforcement. In many cases, they were developed for one application, and we see some uses in others.

I should also point out the fact that we are not focused on the technology; we are focused on the function. We may have five different technologies trying to solve the same problem, but our focus of effort is on intervening with less-lethal force, closely followed by stopping fleeing vehicles and then detecting contraband, particularly weapons, and then everything else. Very close to that has been emergency management because of the global war on terrorism, so we're involved with several projects for that too.

How wide a range of technology does the unit deal with? How much of the stuff would fall under the umbrella of high tech?
Heal: It depends on how you define high tech. We don't do any communications interoperability or software for the simple reason that the expertise is in different parts of the department. The Active Denial System, I think, would be high-tech.

The vast majority (of things the unit looks at) have either been improvements on existing technologies or what we call "transition technology." A lot of the stuff we got into is so new that there's no nomenclature, there's no taxonomy, there are no standards.

Our focus of effort is on intervening with less-lethal force, closely followed by stopping fleeing vehicles and then detecting contraband, particularly weapons.

A transition technology is any technology that has side effects, and is immature or underdeveloped, but still provides an advantage over the conventional method. So, for instance, beanbags (as a substitute for bullets) have been basically law enforcement's bread and butter for nonlethal options, but we don't like it. It's just better than the alternatives.

I want to come back to some of the specific technologies in a second, but how many people are in the unit?
Heal: Two. Me and a partner.

How long has it been in place?
Heal: In 1996, it actually took a name. It was probably in place a year before that. In 10 years, we've spent $1,800, and the last time I checked, we had nearly $12 million in grants we were managing. There is no funding in domestic law enforcement for technology. All comes through the federal government, and there are all kinds of problems with that, and it comes with all kinds of baggage. The big thing is that the local taxpayer is not very tolerant of allowing anybody to spend their tax dollars and experiment.

So a portion of what you do is accountability, as opposed to just trying out a gadget.
Heal: Yeah, definitely. As a matter of fact, if (technology developers are) looking for us just to put it in the field, they've got problems already, for the simple reason that we don't experiment on our own citizens.

The three big showstoppers are funding, because there is none (and) that means that the developer has to fund it on their own dime; civil liability, and that doesn't mean that we demand to be indemnified, but we at least have to be cognizant of all the little pitfalls we can anticipate; and the last thing is human bioeffects.

The Active Denial System--you're looking at Raytheon's Silent Guardian version, right?
Heal: We're looking at several different versions. The problem with Raytheon is, it was developed for a military application, and there are two big problems that are just inherent with almost every single military solution.

One is that they have $100,000 solutions looking to solve $5,000 problems, and the second thing is that they have really serious issues with mobility and power. So what happens is that they build this huge thing, and then they're surprised that nobody in law enforcement is interested in buying it. We're not going to spend a million dollars on it. We need (for it) to be handheld, and so what we're lobbying the NIJ (

You know, $100 million has been spent on it, and it's probably the most studied less-lethal option in history. We're absolutely confident that with the way it's designed--with all the safety mechanisms--we're not even going to accidentally hurt somebody. Even the injuries that have occurred--they've been basically bad burns. Now, how can they possibly compare that with an M-16, where even a slight injury is going to be more serious?

It's real easy (for critics) to stand there and say, "We don't like these things because of this, this, and this," but what happens is that they don't offer any meaningful alternatives. We'd like it to be perfect too.

Tasers are pretty well-established in law enforcement departments. Do you think that law enforcement gets overcriticized for use of the Taser?
Heal: Well, it's easy to sit and criticize. One thing is that where you put a less-lethal option in the force spectrum is based on two philosophical underpinnings, and both of those deal with the force spectrum itself.

Eighty to 85 percent of all law enforcement agencies use what's called an effects-based philosophy, and that means that where you put a device in the force spectrum is directly dependent upon the likelihood of injury and the severity of the injury to the suspect. So in that case, Tasers are put quite low because the likelihood of injury is very, very low--0.03 percent--far, far less than beanbags, for instance, which is 100 percent.

There is no funding in domestic law enforcement for technology. All comes through the federal government, and there are all kinds of problems with that, and it comes with all kinds of baggage.

Shoot a beanbag at somebody, and we know we've got 100 percent chance of hurting him. (These departments) would put (the Taser) in many cases at or below pepper spray, and in those cases, you can use the Taser legally according to your policy, your department, in any of the cases that would also justify use of pepper spray.

Fifteen to 20 percent of the departments use a behavior-based model. A behavior-based model is not focused on the amount of injury to the suspect but rather the amount of defiance by the suspect. In those cases, including in our department, it's placed quite high on the force spectrum.

Now the criticism that it's overused, I think, is appropriate. It's just human nature. What happens has got nothing to do with police work or anything else. It's just the fact that if somebody finds an easy way to do something, the human psyche naturally gravitates toward that. Now, we overcome that with two things--policy and training--but because of the philosophy of doing very little damage and because it's so easy--yeah, I think there are situations that I would have a hard time defending.

Taser is now offering a . Do you think the public is ready for having a stun gun in a pocket or pocketbook?
Heal: I hope so, because they've already got guns there. So if you're asking me if we should take the Tasers away when they can legally buy handguns, I see real issues with that.

You've been looking at a microwave beam to stop cars--it would basically zap the microprocessors in the cars--but that's not quite ready for prime time, as I understand it.
Heal: That's right. It's tough--(the challenge is) not moving the energy across free space, which is tough enough. It's the fact that most of the cars now are either rustproof--using a nonconductive material on the bottom, like Ziebart and so forth--or they have plastic panels, and the computers are all protected from radiation anyway. So (the challenge) is actually coupling the electric current into the car to get it into the computer.

The one that's been successful, by Eureka Aerospace, approaches it a little bit differently than most of the other developers. Rather than just spraying a car with high doses of radiation, (CEO James Tatoian) looked at it the same way you would killing a tank.

There are certain parts of the tank that are pretty much impervious--for instance, you don't shoot at the turret--but there are other places that are very, very vulnerable. Well, his idea is that there are parts of the car that are going to be more vulnerable to this coupling issue than others.

Interestingly enough, he's been successful on every single attempt, except for on one Chevy Lumina: he could kill the engine, but then it would restart, for some reason. We still haven't figured out why that one is so hard. And then we don't know how it's going to work on a diesel engine yet, either.

What are the most promising things you guys are looking at right now, the things that you think are going to be fielded soonest?
Heal: Probably the cyber command post. It's a concept and a technology. The concept is that it (enables you to move) information from a crime scene--which has a lot of situational awareness without the same degree of expertise and authority--to a field command post, and that also will lead to any subject matter expert anywhere in the world. I would expect that to be operational in the next 12 months.

Then we've got the L-3 3D scanner, which is very promising. That is actually commercially available right now. As soon as (a technology like this) does get in the marketplace, we drop it, and it has to go through all the other systems.

Once you have a developer that gets a product developed to the point where it has commercial value, they're not very interested in changing it. So the success that we've had has been in identifying those technologies that are still in the early-development stages that we can then leverage with suggestions and ideas. When (the developer) finally does get it ready, it more closely fits our needs, and he's happy, usually, because he's got a more marketable product.

One specific technology I wanted to address with you is the SkySeer. You see that as promising, but I guess there are still some issues with that?
Heal: Actually, the technology is not the holdup; it's the authority. What happened is, the (Federal Aviation Administration) got blindsided. We were actually ahead of them--the technology exceeded the authority to use it.

That's not uncommon with any of the technologies, but in this particular case, we way underestimated how far behind (the FAA was), both in thinking and in preparation.

The original intent was to fly it under the same regulations you would fly any other radio-controlled airplane, the same ones you can buy in Kmart, and so they took an interpretation called the "tools or toy" doctrine. It basically says, if you use it as a toy, no problem; if you use it as a tool, then it has to come under a different set of regulations. It has nothing to do with the aircraft.

They still have no definitive guidance. So the General Accounting Office is now doing an investigation, and its report is due out in November, and we think that we're going to get some definitive guidance from the FAA shortly thereafter.

that we're looking at. The reason we were enthralled with SkySeer is that it was built from the bottom up for law enforcement purposes. Everything else has either been a toy that has been enhanced or a military application that has been adapted.

Needless to say, the SkySeer is very appealing to us because, literally, we worked with them when that was still just somebody's idea, but there are other ones out there--, Night Hawk, and are all promising.

What's the weirdest thing you've encountered?
Heal: Weirdest? Maybe a remote-controlled machine gun. Let me think. Weird is tough because we live on the threshold--it's weird all the time. In fact, if we define it as weird, we probably haven't got an open-enough mind.

I'll tell you some things that surprised us. The magnetic-acoustic device was one that literally blew our socks off.

What is that?
Heal: The Magnetic-acoustic device (from HPV Technologies) is basically a sound propagation system, for lack of a better term. They're not speakers in the conventional sense because they use magnets instead of speakers. They also use a planar wave instead of an acoustical wave.

The sound comes through with unbelievable clarity at ranges that defy anything I could describe. As a matter of fact, at one measured mile, I personally listened to a Frank Sinatra record with the accompaniment, the background music, the lyrics, everything.