Police bullets kill bean bags stun, usually

'Less-than-lethal' force is studied

September 02, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

A man armed with a knife, proclaiming himself to be Jesus, stands outside the Greyhound bus station in downtown Philadelphia, holding a phalanx of police officers at bay.

With television news cameras rolling, officers in riot gear slowly approach and one fires a gun launching five foam rubber projectiles that strike the man in the chest and momentarily stun him before he is tackled and disarmed.

The Philadelphia incident last month was a textbook case of the use of "less-than-lethal" force, a concept that police departments across the country are increasingly adopting to disarm suspects armed with weapons such as knives, machetes or baseball bats.

Baltimore police are investigating whether they could have used a less-than-lethal measure they purchased last year -- a nylon "bean bag" filled with lead pellets fired from a 12-gauge shotgun that unfolds and stuns on impact -- in a controversial shooting involving a knife-wielding suspect two days before the Philadelphia incident.

The Baltimore shooting, videotaped by a bystander, provoked wide community outcry. The city state's attorney's office is reviewing interviews and other evidence to decide whether to seek an indictment.

Examples of less-than-lethal technology that are available to officers or soon will be include snare nets fired from gas guns, Tasers that fire darts delivering a disabling electric charge and a hand-held laser about the size of a flashlight that would temporarily blind a suspect. A once-promising experiment with sticky goo that would immobilize a suspect has been shelved because it was too difficult to clean up.

The most widely used less-than-lethal weapons, besides the pepper spray and baton carried by patrol officers, are high-velocity projectiles that are designed to stun or knock down a suspect. Those include the rubber cylinders used in Philadelphia and the bean bag.

"Getting struck with a 12-gauge bean bag round is equivalent to being hit with a fastball thrown by a major league pitcher," said Larry Glick, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association in Doylestown, Pa. "It's just an extension of the baton. It affords us the luxury of stand-off. So now policemen can take into custody those individuals armed with knives or machetes that otherwise, if they didn't have these [less lethal] weapons, they'd have to resort to deadly force, to shoot them."

Less lethal projectiles do not necessarily pack enough force to knock a person down, but can stun someone long enough for police to move in. "The suspect doesn't know what [the police] are doing.

He just sees the big gun with this big flash," said Capt. Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., police department, who teaches courses to police across the country in less-than-lethal force.

"So, maybe psychologically, he thinks he's being shot and acts accordingly."

Raymond Downs, who coordinates studies of less-than-lethal technology for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), an arm of the federal Justice Department, said bean bag and rubber projectiles have been used by police with "mixed results."

"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," he said. "For some very large individuals, they seem to be able to be hit with these things and not be terribly affected. If you get too close, you run the risk of more serious injury."

In fact, it is called less-than-lethal force even though such projectiles can injure and kill. A 61-year-old Prince George's County woman with osteoporosis was killed in August 1992 by a rubber projectile shot by county sheriff's deputies. The bullet broke three of her ribs, and a bone splinter punctured her heart.

And the bean bag has recently caused two fatalities, in New Mexico and Ottawa, Canada. In both instances, the bean bag was fired from close range.

Still, such tactics have prevented lethal shootings in most instances, experts say.

"In some cases, I think it's safe to say they have saved a life," said Downs of the NIJ.

Some officers remain skeptical. Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Baltimore's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said it may not be prudent to use unproven technologies with officers' lives on the line.

"I think it's all a lot of 'Star Wars' stuff. What might work in the laboratory or classroom is not practical for the street," he said.

"I have not seen anything that I would use against somebody that had the ability to injure me seriously or cause death," McLhinney said.

"The rule of thumb is you meet deadly force with deadly force. Anything less on the part of a police officer would be foolish."

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