When Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown during an altercation in Ferguson, Mo., the incident led to protests and fierce debate about the use of deadly force by police. That controversy is again front-page news with the recent fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer in South Carolina. While both shootings have raised serious questions about the use of deadly force, the technology for non-lethal ammunition and weapons continues to evolve.
In February, the Ferguson Police Department began testing a device called "The Alternative" that docks a ping-pong sized projectile on the end of a handgun. The mechanism slows a bullet down as it enters the projectile, so that when it impacts a person, it’s less likely to penetrate the body but still incapacitates the person. Alternative Ballistics, which makes the device, describes it as “an option in a lethal force situation.”
The Alternative is both unique and controversial. Just about every other kind of less-than-lethal ammunition (pepper spray, rubber bullets, beanbag projectiles and Tasers) is designed for relatively safe situations, such as civil disturbances, riots or circumstances where a person is threatening others with a non-lethal weapon, according to Steve Ijames, interim police chief for Republic, Mo., and an expert on non-lethal ammunition. But Ijames described the Alternative as “technologically terrible” because it involves using non-lethal ammunition in a deadly situation, reversing current policies on when non-lethal ammunition should be used. Ijames said non-lethal ammunition, such as the Alternative, can’t protect a cop the way a standard gun can because if it fails to incapacitate an armed person, then the officer could end up injured or dead.
The Alternative has been around for about three years, but other types of non-lethal ammunition have been used by law enforcement for decades. The most popular high-tech, non-lethal weapon today is the Taser, which was developed in the late 1960s. More than 15,000 law enforcement and military agencies were using Tasers in 2011, according to data from the National Institute of Justice. Today, the Taser fits on a police officer’s belt and is effective between 15 and 35 feet. It fires two small dart-like electrodes that deliver an electrical jolt.
“They can bring down a suspect instantaneously 90 percent of the time,” said Ijames. “That’s better than a police handgun, which can hit a person but not necessarily stop them immediately, while a Taser stops them in their tracks.”
But Tasers aren’t cheap. The average cost is around $1,000 per officer and another $25 for the electronic dart cartridge, compared to $350 for a shotgun. Equipping every officer with a Taser in the average-sized police department could get quite expensive.
After the 1960s riots in Los Angeles that killed 34 people, police there began using beanbag rounds fired from shotguns as a way to quell unruly and violent rioters. Both beanbags and rubber bullets are dangerous at close range, but are only accurate up to a certain distance. Rubber bullets can ricochet and hurt innocent bystanders. When hit by a beanbag round or rubber bullet, a person ends up with a nasty bruise or even some broken ribs.
Other types of non-lethal ammunition, such as pepper spray and tear gas, are also useful, but because both propellants easily disburse in the air, they can end up harming people who aren't involved in the disturbance and, in the case of tear gas, cause blindness, which is a huge liability issue.
A protester in Ferguson runs from tear gas, which can cause blindness. (AP/Charlie Riedel)
Another type of non-lethal weapon, known as a blunt impact projectile, uses a collapsible nose and can be shot from the same kind of launcher used to fire tear gas canisters. Gregory Sullivan, CEO of Security Devices International (SDI), which manufactures the ammo, believes products like his can solve the shortcomings of rubber bullets, beanbags, tear gas and pepper sprays. That's because it works like a “small airbag,” according to Sullivan, “incapacitating the subject, but not causing lethal injury,” whether the person is close by or far away. SDI’s ammo costs between $18 and $26 apiece, which compares to about $45 for the Alternative.
According to Ijames, beanbag rounds are the best balance of effectiveness and safety and because “just about every police department already has shotguns,” beanbag weapons are very affordable. However, Ijames has seen a dramatic rise in the use of Tasers, despite their high cost, while the use of other types of non-lethal ammunition has dropped.
But has non-lethal ammunition made the police more effective and less lethal? No one seems to know. Law enforcement agencies don’t have to report police officer shootings to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so it’s unclear whether the use of deadly force by police is falling and if the use of non-lethal weapons is the reason why.
Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer, doesn’t believe these new weapons are going to cut police officer shootings. “Non-lethal weapons are not easy to deploy; most police don’t know how to use them, or they don’t have them," he said, noting that most non-lethal weapons have to be stored in the trunk of a police cruiser. “In the Ferguson case, they would have been irrelevant."
Kenney does, however, expect the technology behind Taser-like weapons to improve to a point where they replace handguns. But the best way to decrease the use of deadly force by the police, he said, is to improve training so that officers learn not just how to shoot but when to shoot.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, agrees that better training might help. Speaking at a task force on policing in January, Wexler called police training today too fragmented. What’s needed is scenario-based training that replicates quick-changing, often chaotic circumstances and teaches an officer how to respond “in ways that mirror what actually happens in the street.”