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Prof: 'Taser-proof vests put cops in danger'

Tinfoil waistcoat could have someone's eye out

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An Arizona inventor has been granted a patent on his Taser-proof fabric, which he intends to sell to police officers to protect them from villains toting electric stunguns. However, it has been argued that protective garments of this sort will in fact endanger policemen's lives.

News of the patent for Greg Schultz's Thor Shield fabric comes to us courtesy of New Scientist, under the headline "Taser-proof clothing creates new hazard".

A Taser shoots its projectiles at an angle to each other

Don't try the homie sideways-gun trick with one of these.

The idea of Thor Shield - now to be distributed by US body-armour maker Point Blank - is to provide a protecting layer of conductive foil. Tasers work by using two separate probes to pass a high-voltage current through the body. The probes don't need to touch skin to do so, as the high voltages involved allow the current to jump across an "air gap" of up to two inches into the body, which being made largely of water is a fairly good conductor. The body bridges the larger, several-inch gap between the taser's flying probes, and so the circuit is completed and the crippling current can flow.

This is why a Taser actually needs its probes to be quite widely spaced in order to work: if they struck close together the weapon would tend to short-circuit, and current wouldn't get enough of a chance to pass through the body. Thus, Taser probes don't fly straight out of the end of the weapon. They are angled up and down by four degrees each, so as to get a suitable spread but avoid flying either side of the target.

But a layer of Thor Shield is a much better conductor than a body. Thus, current passes instead through the foil and the body is unaffected. Schultz says his kit has been thoroughly tested and works fine. He reckons that with Tasers on sale to ordinary citizens in America, plods there will be glad to buy his gear. (They might also find it handy in cases of "friendly fire" from trigger-happy stungun-toting colleagues.) Schultz says he will only sell to law enforcement and military customers.

So what's the "new hazard" conjured up by the peaceniks at New Scientist?

Well, they've phoned up Steve Wright, "an expert on non-lethal weapons". He says "People armed with Tasers will now aim at the head - the officer may end up blind."

You'd think that the author of Your Unfriendly Neighbourhood Bobby, New Technologies of Political Repression and Politics of Pain would be aware how futile it is to try and get two projectiles flying on tracks separated by eight degrees to hit someone's head. It's physically impossible at any distance greater than four feet or so, and even inside that range you'd need to be Billy the Kid to avoid missing with at least one of the darts.

It's difficult enough to hit someone at all with a pistol in a fight. It's very difficult indeed to hit them in the head - even lavishly-trained police marksmen have to almost put the weapon to someone's face to manage it. And that's with a pistol that shoots in straight lines.

Only a moron would even think of trying it with a Taser, and that moron would almost certainly achieve nothing if he did. Sure, you might put someone's eye out with a Taser, just as you could by throwing a bottle at them - or, more effectively, by sticking your thumb in their eye. But that's not an argument against Thor Shield. One might as well say that bulletproof vests make you less safe - you're a lot more likely to survive a bullet wound to the body than one to the head.

Lord knows there are probably better things for plods to spend taxpayers' money on than Taser-proof vests. After all, it's the cops themselves who say that Tasers do no lasting harm. But arguing that a Thor Shield vest makes a police officer less safe... dear me.

The New Scientist trailer for the article - to be published on paper in full in November - is here. ®

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