Editorial: Police urgently need a more humane alternative to lethal weapons. It’s time to design one

The fatal shooting of a homeless, mentally ill Escondido man with nearly 200 arrests on his record last Wednesday raises many familiar questions, starting with, Why does America have a history of accepting that it is OK for a police officer to kill someone for aberrant behavior? Why are police officers expected to know how to deal with those who have mental health issues? And how can people with chronic mental health problems be more readily compelled to accept professional treatment?

But there is another angle to this issue that is not considered nearly enough: Why can’t inventors, entrepreneurs and law enforcement agencies come up with a highly effective alternative to a handgun to subdue criminal suspects?

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Way back in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a criminal justice study that came back with an urgent recommendation that police needed to have a non-lethal method of incapacitating people without permanently injuring them.

This eventually led to Tasers becoming by far the most common electric “stun gun” used by police. They launch two small darts connected to the firing device by copper wire to, at least in theory, incapacitate suspects with electric shocks. They are recommended for use on suspects from 15 to 35 feet away. Unfortunately, Tasers — first patented in 1974 — are both dangerous and ineffective. A 2017 Reuters investigation found Tasers were a cause or contributing factor to 153 deaths since 2000. A 2016 Los Angeles Times investigation based on Los Angeles Police Department records found that Tasers had their intended effect — causing someone to submit to arrest — only 53% of the time. In the other 47% of cases, officers sometimes felt compelled to use their guns, at times to lethal effect.

After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a range of police departments across the nation sought out new alternatives in non-lethal weapons. But an analysis by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the criminal justice system, found that the alternatives had the same problems as Tasers: They could be lethal and weren’t always effective.

Axon Enterprise, the Scottsdale, Arizona, company that makes Tasers, says it is developing a much more effective “next generation” Taser — but that it might not be available until 2030. A 2020 analysis by the Wall Street Journal noted that Axon had few competitors in the lucrative stun gun industry.

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That must change. The status quo of Americans dying at police officers’ hands has got to go. Any number of wealthy philanthropists — or maybe the Biden administration — should offer a big financial prize to the person or team of people who can come up with a highly effective, non-lethal device that can be used to subdue suspects. The need for such a device is immense — demand for it would be huge.

Page the richest Californians: Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Ellison or Larry Page or …