The long, safer arm of the law
Charles “Sid” Heal stands excitedly in the parking lot of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station in San Dimas, tinkering with a prototype for the ominously named “Active Denial System.”
With one zap from what looks like a satellite dish on a tripod, those within target range feel a burning sensation on their skin.
Heal, a Sheriff’s Department commander, tested the device on himself.
“It is like stepping into a scalding shower. You are going to step back quickly,” Heal said. “It just stops them in their tracks.”
Heal likes the system because he sees it as one day making rubber bullets or tear gas obsolete -- giving police a less violent way to control crowds and combative suspects. Heal said he believes the Sheriff’s Department will be deploying some form of the weapon within a few years.
Heal, a barrel-chested veteran with a street-fighter’s nose and bulging biceps, knows a lot about deadly force.
He was a beat cop in southeast L.A. County, headed the sheriff’s SWAT unit and had tours in Vietnam, Somalia, Kuwait and Iraq as a Marine and Marine reservist.
But for the last decade, Heal has dedicated himself to helping cops avoid deadly confrontations. As head of the sheriff’s Technology Exploration Unit, he has tested hundreds of high-tech law enforcement gizmos -- some backed by huge corporations, others the brainchild of garage inventors.
The 32-year veteran of the department is not a scientist, and he doesn’t develop products. But a bad review from him can doom or delay an invention, while endorsements can have buyers lining up at the maker’s door. Some, such as Tasers and pepper-spraying flashlights, are now a part of deputies’ everyday lives.
His pursuit of improving policing through advanced technology has made him a national figure in law enforcement circles. Guys without last names from the CIA seek his advice. If James Bond were an American, colleagues joke, Heal would be Bond’s gadget guy, Q.
“He is a silent warrior. He brings a skill set few possess,” said Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Mike Hillman, a friend of 30 years. “He has been able to integrate technology designed for the military into law enforcement to save lives and wrote the bible on SWAT.”
At the Sheriff’s Department SWAT headquarters, Heal tosses what looks like a small black dumbbell onto the entryway floor. It zips across the floor.
It’s a “Throw Bot,” a remote-control camera mounted in a hard material so strong it can be fired out of a launcher or tossed into a building during a standoff. As Heal plays with its remote control, he begins mulling over improvements.
“It needs a color 360-degree lens,” he said. “But it is simple and practical and avoids a deputy being in harm’s way.”
Soon, Heal is onto another invention, a strange-looking ladder contraption.
“The Climb Assist” can help officers climb over spiked fences. It is Heal’s latest favorite toy and was designed by a veteran Hawthorne policeman. Heal said he became intrigued after watching the officer’s wife, who was wearing high heels, latch it to a spiked fence and quickly hop over.
But it will take more than that one demonstration before the ladder is given to deputies. Heal and his staff members test inventions scores of times. Often, devices seem good on paper but prove impractical or don’t work as advertised, or officers don’t like to use them.
Heal initially gave a thumbs down to the “TigerLight,” a cayenne pepper-spraying flashlight.
“Guys in the field didn’t like ‘em,” Heal said. “They carried them upside down and the spray leaked all over their pants.”
But the manufacturer made fixes, and now the Sheriff’s Department has 500 in service. The device proved itself last year when two deputies made a traffic stop in the East L.A. area. One of the people who was stopped reached for one of the deputies’ guns, but the officer thwarted him with a blast from the TigerLight.
Heal is particularly fond of so-called olfactory agents -- essentially stink bombs that officers can use to clear out an area. Heal says there is nothing better than the “smell of something dead and funky” to get people to move. When Heal tested one such agent at sheriff’s headquarters in Monterey Park, an entire floor had to be evacuated.
Sheriff’s Lt. Shaun Mathers recalls using another of the stinky weapons, the “Skunk Shot,” to drive gang members, taggers and drug abusers from abandoned buildings in Compton.
Of all the devices that have landed on Heal’s desk, only 35 have made it into the field.
And even with successful paraphernalia, there are bumps along the road. Take the case of “SkySeer,” an unmanned aircraft weighing just 4 pounds. Using a 360-degree camera, it can fly over an incident and send video to deputies below.
Heal was excited about the aircraft, seeing as it as possibly replacing many chopper surveillance operations and augmenting others.
“Our rescue helicopter costs upward of $1,200 a hour . . . and our regular observation helicopter costs $450 an hour. This thing costs cents on the dollar to run,” he said.
During a demonstration in the desert last year, the SkySeer worked perfectly. But the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the program because the agency has yet to write regulations for use of drones by non-federal agencies. Heal still smarts over the grounding, but holds out hope that the SkySeer -- or something like it -- can fly.
“It became so blown out of proportion,” he said.
Heal’s biggest interest is in devices that allow cops to step back from clashes with suspects. He sees a day when technology will significantly reduce violent confrontations involving police officers.
And if anything spurs him in that quest, it’s the memory of a summer night in 1982 when he was a deputy patrolling an unincorporated district near the corner of 89th Street and Compton Avenue.
He and his partner got into an altercation with a car-chase suspect who they later learned was high on PCP.
“We are in a knock-down, hair-pulling fight,” Heal recalled. “This guy is kicking my butt. . . . [He] sucker punches me, and all I know is my nose is swelling up and I’m fighting for my gun. I’m hitting him so hard [with a flashlight] that I can hear the batteries rattling around.”
Heal said he was prepared to grab his gun barrel, jam it into the suspect and pull the trigger with his thumb when his partner, Jon Rhodes, jumped on the suspect. Their combined 380 pounds knocked him down. Backup help arrived, and the suspect was eventually restrained.
The fight left Heal with a broken nose and barely open eyes -- and lingering questions about whether there was a better way to handle such confrontations.
Heal moved up the chain of command over the next two decades, eventually rising to head of the Sheriff’s Department SWAT team known as the Special Enforcement Bureau.
His first foray into the world of police inventions came in 1995 -- and in Somalia, not Los Angeles. A reserve chief warrant officer in the U.S. Marines, Heal earlier had written a report for his superiors arguing that it was a mistake to use bullets on the violent mobs Marines encountered. Instead, he urged the use of nonlethal weapons.
Marine Lt. Gen. Anthony C. Zinni gave Heal carte blanche to select and employ all means of devices.
“I asked if I could spend a million dollars, and he said yes,” Heal said. “We had lasers, sponge grenades, sticky foam, foam with [metal balls], you name it.”
The sticky foam was supposed to glue feet to the ground. When it didn’t work in testing, Heal’s team quickly adapted it, noticing that if it was fired near the crotch it stuck a person’s legs together.
When he returned to the Sheriff’s Department, officials asked him to find less lethal methods to use on the streets of L.A. County.
He started small, with a redesign of the beanbag rounds that were used to knock down suspects.
In 2000, Heal oversaw the delivery of Tasers to line deputies, making the Sheriff’s Department one of the first large forces to widely deploy the new generation of the weapon, which fires electrodes into a suspect, causing muscle spasms and disabling the person. The device has been criticized by civil rights groups and Amnesty International because of some deaths allegedly connected to it.
Peter Bibring, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said that Heal’s zeal to find new ways to avoid confrontation is laudable but that such weapons in the wrong hands can be misused and have unforeseen effects.
Tasers, he said, were not tested on drug-intoxicated people but over the years have been used on the streets with deadly results. “The people of Los Angeles County shouldn’t be used as guinea pigs. We are not a testing ground,” he said.
Heal concedes that some deaths have occurred after Taser use, but says cause and effect has not been proven. Overall, he seems to have little time for critics, believing that the devices he deploys save lives.
And he’s still hot on the trail of the next big thing.
He says he is close to signing off on distribution of the “Magnetic Audio Device,” a bullhorn that projects sound in a narrow beam that can be heard as far as two miles away. Sheriff’s deputies have used the machine in training exercises. Heal said it allows deputies to directly speak to a specific person without putting themselves in harm’s way. It could be deployed in crowd control and lone-gunman situations.
Heal is also testing the “Layered Voice Analyzer,” a machine that is supposed to detect possible deception by analyzing voice patterns. The Sheriff’s Department is trying out the machines during the testing process for deputy recruits.
“It would be nice as a banner at the bottom of TV screens for the upcoming presidential elections,” Heal joked. “It does work, but we don’t know how well.”
If there is a holy grail for Heal, it is figuring out a way to reduce those high-speed chases for which Southern California has become known.
So far, there has been more frustration than progress.
Heal has been working with Eureka Aerospace on a vehicle-stopping device the firm has developed. It uses a directed microwave beam that zaps cars to a stop by disrupting the vehicles’ microprocessors at distances up to 35 feet.
But Heal said it also may hit more than the target, so it needs refinement. During one early test by the developer on his own car at home, Heal said, the beam hit other nearby electronics and destroyed the garage door opener.