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Histories of Cop Technologies

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The entire history of supposedly “non-lethal” police technologies is one for which we need greater understanding. What are these technologies really, how did they develop, and how has supposedly non-lethal technologies been made to seem safe and OK and humane? I am sure Simon knows a ton about this and no doubt there are other scholars who are working on some of these questions. But it’s not general knowledge. This history of mace from 2014 is a worthy start for us thinking about all of this.

Patenting “Chemical Mace” proved far more difficult than Litman anticipated. Because the chemical had already been identified by scientists, he never managed to patent a chemical mixture for his devices. His early sprayer design wasn’t granted a patent either, and only after years of tweaking, in 1969, did he arrive at a patentable sprayer design that we’d still recognize today.

Which brings us back to Sheriff Joseph Woods of Cook County, Illinois—one of many powerful members of law enforcement eying new technologies to revolutionize the battle for civil order.

As Woods well knew, the late 1960s were a violent time for American cities. Protests against race inequality and the Vietnam War were flaring up across the country, and police forces were militarizing in response. In the wake of the Watts riots, Los Angeles police were considering the purchase of a 20-ton bulletproof vehicle, capable of carrying a machine gun and crushing a barricade of cars. Detroit police had supplemented standard-issue pistols with 500 rifles, 300 shotguns, and 1200 tear gas grenades. Sheriff Woods’ approach was to defy an order from his state’s Circuit Court and build a riot control squad from civilian volunteers. His Chicago-area police officers were equipped with the latest in law enforcement technology, namely the mace spray that immediately sparked controversy.

By 1967, mace was being tested on unruly crowds across the nation. Norman Mailer mentioned mace in reporting from antiwar rallies in Washington. As a November story in the Pittsburgh Reading Eagle suggested the concept of a spray weapon was still something of a surprise: “Police from Scituate, R.I. To Chula Vista, Calif., have added a new weapon to their arsenals—an aerosol can of gas.” But even though mace was experimental, it was quickly becoming a weapon of the front lines.

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