Sonia Sotomayor could declare martial law on Kevin Orcutt's nunchaku

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But the OPN had its critics, too. A Catholic bishop called the nunchaku a "torture device." One morning, Orcutt remembers, he was flipping through the TV channels when he caught televangelist Pat Robertson calling the OPN "the devil's tool." By January 1990, the debate over the use of the nunchaku had turned traditional political alliances on their heads. Pro-choice liberals, who once might have experienced the brunt force of the police during earlier demonstrations, were suddenly cheering on officers from the sidelines of anti-abortion demonstrations. A meeting of the California ACLU chapters erupted into a raucous debate when they couldn't reach consensus on whether Orcutt's nunchaku fit within their guidelines. Meanwhile, conservatives were lashing out at police departments for their brutality against Operation Rescue demonstrators. Then-senator William Armstrong (now the president of Colorado Christian University) decried the pain-compliance tactics as "something we expect to hear about in Nicaragua or Nazi Germany — but not in the United States of America." The conservative Coloradan introduced a bill that allowed the federal government to withhold funds from cities that didn't adopt policies prohibiting the use of excessive force by law-enforcement agencies against individuals engaged in non-violent civil-rights demonstrations; President George Bush signed it into law in 1989.

Operation Rescue filed federal lawsuits against both San Diego and Los Angeles on the grounds that the pain-compliance tactics used by their police departments constituted excessive force; some protesters claimed they had suffered lasting pain and injury from use of the OPN. The cases were watched closely by police departments and civil-rights attorneys across the country, since they dealt with a legal question that had not yet been determined by the courts: Could police inflict pain on non-violent individuals during arrests? Law-enforcement policy on officer use-of-force had always been measured against the yardstick of justification. Cops could legally kill, for example, but only if they perceived their lives to be in danger. They could punch a suspect in the nose, but only if that suspect was threatening the officer with his fists. As the threat level declined, so did the scale of justified force. So what about when the lawbreaker posed no physical threat to an officer but was actively resisting by becoming passive and limp?

The San Diego case went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. While perceived by the legal community to be the most liberal federal circuit, in 1994 the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that police had not used unreasonable force in the anti-abortion protests: The pain caused by the OPN was justified because it amounted to a "controlled force" that could be adjusted as the subject began to comply. The landmark ruling set a precedent that pain-compliance techniques could be used to effect control of non-violent suspects.

But for Orcutt, it was a vindication that came too late.

In 1992, Los Angeles had settled its Operation Rescue lawsuit by agreeing to no longer use the OPN on anti-abortion protesters. The "political climate" in the wake of the Rodney King riots helped convince L.A. to settle, a city attorney said, even though no OPNs were involved in that beating. "The department is concerned about the public perception of their using a tool some people feel is a tool of excessive force," he told the Los Angeles Times.

"Even if you think Operation Rescue is the worst group in the world, you'd have to agree that, if this is allowed against them, it will be used against the Rodney Kings of the world," pronounced one of Operation Rescue's lawyers.

The Operation Rescue lawsuits and Rodney King controversy cooled California on trying innovative police tactics. And for years, police departments across the country were unwilling to even consider adopting new tools, particularly seemingly exotic ones like the nunchaku.

"It wasn't so much about OPNs, because they weren't involved, but everybody just shut down — every department," Orcutt says. "They wouldn't look at anything, they wouldn't do anything, they wouldn't change anything, because they were afraid. For years after Rodney King, I couldn't get anyone to even look at this thing: 'Maybe in a few years we'll take a look, but for right now the chief isn't going to do anything.' Just when this device was starting to take off."

In the late '90s, though, the law-enforcement industry was suddenly electrified by a new "non-lethal" weapon. This updated Taser model required less training than the OPN and was effective at subduing more violent suspects; it was also less lethal than a gun. Many police departments that wouldn't look at the OPN decided to try the Taser. And soon the retractable baton was introduced, too. Part of the OPN's appeal had been its size, but the retractable baton is even smaller than the nunchaku, even though it can extend to several feet. The retractable baton, too, requires less training, which is appealing to cash-strapped departments that want a tool every officer from rookies to veterans can pick up and use.

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Jared Jacang Maher