Amid the cries for de-escalation and the protests of police shootings, technology has stepped in to give police officers options other than their handguns when confronting a resistive subject. The term “less lethal” survived as the term of choice even though it is a bit of an oxymoron. Lethality is the quality of being capable of causing death. The intent in using less lethal means is specifically to avoid killing someone, therefore “less than lethal” was a competing term for a while in the profession. However, the application of the technologies discussed in this article are not gentle on the human body and, in fact, in rare cases, their use has been concurrent with a subject’s death, therefore we cannot say that they are always non-lethal.
When deaths of suspects occur in association with less lethal efforts of control, it is important to know that these technologies are used on highly agitated persons who often have underlying drug use or health problems. Sometimes these methods occur after a lengthy physical struggle or pursuit. A death associated with custody cannot be assumed to be the fault of those making the contact.
It is also important that the citizenry understands that less lethal means of apprehension and other de-escalation strategies are not appropriate in rapidly evolving situations where an aggressive or threatening person has a deadly weapon and poses an imminent threat to others. An edged weapon or blunt instrument can be as deadly as a firearm and as swiftly employed to injure or kill. Studies on human capacity and reaction time prove that attacks at distances typical of deadly force encounters can be executed before an officer can fully respond, much less make a choice of multiple force options.
The Los Angeles Police Department is now among the list of agencies deploying the Bolawrap, a technology whose brand name is its description. Mimicking the bolo from Latin American gauchos who used them to subdue cattle. The device fires lines that spin through the air until they reach the suspect, then wrap around them with hooks that are designed to attach to clothing, immobilizing them. The use of the device requires some distance between the officer and the suspect and a wide span in between as the device’s “ropes” twirl through the air.
Now a part of the American lexicon, the TASER has been the most widely used and successful less lethal tool since the nightstick. Although there are other makers of ECWs (Electronic Control Weapons) TASER has the bulk of the market and a history of credibility and research behind it. TASERs work by discharging a set of prongs attached to lines that carry an electrical charge from the unit. The device doesn’t “electrocute” anyone, but sends a charge that locks up the nervous system and immobilizes a person.
The TASER is different from a “stun gun” in that such a device delivers a painful shock on direct contact with a person. It relies on pain and disorientation rather than immobilization. The TASER can be used in that manner in close contact, but then it becomes a pain compliance tool rather than immobilizing a suspect. ECWs are limited to certain distances, can be foiled by heavy clothing, and the prongs must both set into the suspect in a pattern that allows the electric charge to carry across the body. An officer facing an imminent deadly threat should not use an ECW unless another officer is present and prepared to use their firearm.
Other less lethal options are comprised of various impact weapons. These are projectiles fired from designated devices or modified conventional guns that are designed to stun but not penetrate the skin. Due to the velocity and sometimes their construction, sometimes serious injuries occur, but obviously, and by design, far less serious than a bullet would impose.
Law enforcement is always seeking ways to stop attacks and save lives. No technology, including firearms themselves, can solve every problem or in every situation. As always those split-second decisions belong to the humans behind the badge.