TUCSON – Over the course of 22 years at the Tucson Police Department, Chris Potter, a senior night pilot, estimates he’s been targeted by a laser 100 times.
The laser never did any permanent damage – until three and a half years ago, when a green, pulsating laser directly hit his right eye, blinding him.
“I couldn’t see anything out of it. I saw stars,” he said. “It literally felt like I got punched in my eye and there was a piece of debris, like a piece of glass in my eye. It began watering to the point where it was watering down my cheek.”
What happened to Potter isn’t an isolated incident. In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration reported 202 laser-aircraft incidents in Arizona alone and nearly 4,000 around the country. The FAA data showed that Arizona had the fifth-highest rate in the nation per capita: 30.5 per 1 million residents.
And the numbers have been steadily going up. In 2010, the FAA reported 138 incidents in Arizona. In 2011 and 2012, there were 201 and 219 incidents respectively.
In response to the growing number of laser incidents, state lawmakers in April passed a law making it a Class One misdemeanor to point a laser at an aircraft.
Law enforcement agencies applauded the move, but some expressed disappointment in a last-minute amendment that changed the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“That was a mistake,” said Levi Bolton, a lobbyist for the Arizona Police Association, which has a membership of nearly 14,000 law enforcement officers. “The law enforcement community did not embrace the reduction to misdemeanor.”
The Arizona Police Association and other law enforcement groups hope to increase the penalty to a felony during the legislative session that begins in January.
Potter said the Tucson Police Department first saw an increase in laser-pointing incidents in the early 2000s.
“We saw a lot of the convenience stores – like the Circle Ks, the 7-Elevens, the Wal-Marts, the Walgreens – we saw them carrying these little laser pointers that you used to connect to your keychain,” Potter said. “We started seeing a big uprise in those laser pointers being used on aircrafts that were flying overhead.”
The department worked with community groups and businesses to inform them of the dangers. Potter said many of the businesses removed lasers from their counters, and some stopped selling them altogether.
“We saw the use of those lasers on aircrafts disappear a year or two later,” Potter said.
The solution was short-lived, though. Five or six years ago, Tucson police began seeing more laser incidents again. In 2010, there were 36 laser incidents reported to in Tucson, according to the FAA. In 2013, there were 54.
Phoenix has seen similar increases. In 2010, there were 78 incidents in Phoenix and in 2013 that number jumped to 122.
Nationwide, laser incidents surged from 46 in 2004 to 3,960 in 2013, according to similar FAA data analyzed by laserpointersafety.com.
Deputy Chris Janes, a pilot with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, estimates that someone has pointed a laser at his aircraft a dozen or two dozen times over the past seven years.
“I have not received any eye damage,” he said. “But I’ve had headaches afterward. I’ve had eye discomfort for several days afterward.”
Sgt. Jim Grisham, who supervises the department’s air unit, said the problems can be exacerbated when a pilot is wearing night-vision goggles.
Experts say the incidents generally occur for two reasons: curiosity about whether a laser beam can reach a high-flying aircraft and attempting to keep law enforcement pilots from doing their jobs.
A simple 5-milliwatt laser can reach a pilot almost 12,000 feet in the air, and laser beams spread over long distances, according to laserpointersafety.com. Instead of seeing a tiny light beam, pilots experience a wide light beam that fills the window of the cockpit.
In other instances, individuals are purposely trying to deter pilots and law enforcement agencies from doing their jobs, Potter said. Potter was once targeted by a laser for 16 minutes while observing a gunbattle between officers and drug cartel members.
“We were stuck trying to handle that priority call while taking laser hits that entire time,” he said. “Unfortunately it will happen often, where we’re on the scene trying to handle a priority call and then somebody’s targeting us.”
No one is sure why so many incidents occur in Arizona.
Jason Winsky, government affairs director for the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Arizona and a Tucson police sergeant, said it could be because of the normally clear skies here.
“Back East or up in the Pacific Northwest where it’s cloudy and rainy all the time, it’s not as easy to accomplish because you just can’t see what you’re aiming it at,” he said.
Reaction to state law
Potter said the Pima County Attorney’s Office didn’t have a specific law to charge suspects with before the state law passed, instead charging individuals with aggravated assault, assault or endangerment.
So Potter decided to advocate for a law that would specifically prohibit pointing a laser at an aircraft.
First drafts of the law, sponsored by Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, would have made it a Class Five felony to “knowingly or intentionally” point a laser at an aircraft. If the pilot is injured or unable to operate the aircraft, prosecutors would have been able to charge the individual with a more-serious Class Four felony.
But some lawmakers were concerned a minor could be charged with a felony. Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, proposed an amendment that would reduce the felony charge to a Class One misdemeanor. Prosecutors could still charge a suspect with assault under state law.
“It makes it sure that we’re not going to be charging a juvenile with a felony by taking it down to a Class One misdemeanor for everybody,” Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said in support of the amendment in April.
The state Senate overwhelmingly approved the amended bill, as did the state House.
“The bill that passed lacked any kind of significant consequence,” Potter said. “In essence, you would get a more significant ticket for speeding in some circumstances than you would from potentially bringing down an aircraft with a laser pointer.”
Potter said prosecutors can use discretion when they charge an individual. If someone accidentally targeted a plane, prosecutors could lessen the charge.
And Bolton, from the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, said the court system already has mechanisms to deal with juveniles who are suspects.
“In the great state of Arizona, juveniles cannot commit crimes,” he said. “They commit delinquent acts. And only the juvenile court adjudicates or says that a juvenile has committed a crime … Those safeguards are already built into the system.”
Grisham, from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, said he would like to see the law remain as a felony.
“With the felony designation on there, it gives the judicial system a little more teeth,” he said.
Potter said the Tucson Police Department doesn’t arrest individuals under the state law. Instead, officers ask the FBI to review cases under a 2012 federal law that makes it a criminal offense to point a laser at an aircraft. The federal penalty is up to five years in prison, along with fines.
Potter said it’s important to have a state law in addition to the federal law. The federal judicial system is booked, and law enforcement agencies should be able to prosecute on the local level.
“I believe there’s an onus on the state, on even the county prosecutors, to handle their own crimes,” he said. “The federal government and the federal judicial system is very booked, and there is no reason why we should not be handling our own citizens in this state and in our counties locally with our own laws.”
Advocates for laser safety recognize that laws aren’t the only solutions.
In January, the FBI launched a public awareness campaign in 12 cities to inform the public of the dangers lasers pose to aircrafts. The FBI also offered a reward up to $10,000 for information leading to the prosecution and conviction of a person responsible for pointing a laser at an aircraft, said Perryn Collier, a FBI special agent in Phoenix.
“The preliminary figures for the campaign show a 19 percent reduction in those 12 metropolitan areas, and Phoenix was one of those areas,” he said.
Since the pilot program went so well, the FBI expanded the program nationwide in June. It ended in September, and the FBI is currently analyzing how effective the campaign was, Perryn said.
Patrick Murphy, the editor of laserpointersafety.com, said the U.S Food and Drug Administration should require manufacturers to place a label on lasers warning people not to point them at aircraft. The FDA doesn’t have the authority to mandate that, Murphy said. He said they made the suggestion to manufacturers, but few have done it voluntarily.
“I just can’t believe it,” he said. “The very first thing you do if you want people to stop doing things, like stop smoking, you put a label on it.”
Potter said he’s optimistic lawmakers will agree next session that the state law needs to carry a felony charge.
“This has potentially tragic outcome, but (lawmakers) didn’t take it seriously with the consequence phase of it,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but hopefully we’ll be able to get it worked out this year.”