YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The long, safer arm of the law

A Sheriff's Department veteran makes testing gadgets his life's work, seeking devices that can keep deputies out of deadly confrontations.

September 18, 2007|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

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.

Los Angeles Times Articles