The Anne Arundel County Police Department is considering permitting some patrol officers to carry shotguns that fire beanbags instead of pellets - an option that is meant to make the weapons less deadly.
The department's special operations service has used the weapons for 10 years, but the new plan would permit more officers to carry them. The beanbag rounds are designed to deliver a strong blow to a suspect - but not penetrate the skin. Police use them in barricade situations or when a suspect is suicidal.
Lt. David D. Waltemeyer, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel county police, declined to discuss specifics of the new proposal. He said the department's safety committee is studying the issue.
The beanbag rounds are sacks that are usually filled with birdshot. They are called beanbags because they feel like malleable sacks when held.
The rounds were initially used in the 1970s by correctional officers who wanted to be able to control riots or prison fights from a distance.
The Anne Arundel County Police Department has used the weapons four times in the past 10 years, Waltemeyer said. And the department has had no problems with accuracy or penetration, Waltemeyer said. The weapon is designed to be nonlethal when fired at least 30 feet from the suspect.
The department's police union proposed broadening the distribution of the weapons to county patrol officers.
"Any tools that we can be provided that gives us a less than lethal option are a plus," said O'Brien Atkinson IV, the president of the police union.
However, police departments around the country have found that some types of beanbag rounds can penetrate the skin, sometimes causing lethal wounds. This can happen even if the weapons are used as ordered by the manufacturers.
"Over time, some departments have found that if the [bean]bag didn't flatten out ... there could have been some serious injuries even death," said Albert Arena, a project manager with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "It is incumbent upon individual departments to be able to monitor every use of the force option that they have. You don't just buy a gun and say, `Here it is - use it wisely.'"
The Los Angeles Police Department launched a two-year study of the weapon after officers using beanbag rounds inadvertently killed two suspects in 1999. At the time, the department was using the same shotguns that Anne Arundel currently uses - but they were using a less-effective type of ammunition.
Doreen Hudson, a civilian who is in charge of the firearm analysis unit of the Los Angeles Police Department, headed the investigation and found the beanbags retained a compact shape when they emerged from the smooth-bore shotguns the department was using. She said that the "drag stabilized super sock" ammunition that Anne Arundel County uses has a good record.
However, Hudson's study resulted in her department making major changes to the weapons system. They now use a modified shotgun that has a barrel with rifling, or grooves running along the inside, that causes the beanbag to flatten and be less lethal.
Also, she laid out new specifications for the manufacturers of the ammunition to make it safer at a closer range. The Los Angeles officers can now safely shoot suspects that are five feet away, she said.
Los Angeles' model is not the norm for departments; it was first unveiled at a police conference last summer in Miami. The results of Hudson's study are expected to appear this year in Police Chief, an industry publication.
Closer to home, the Howard County Police Department had some initial trouble with the beanbag ammunition it was using when it started its program 10 years ago, said Sgt. Bob Wagner, who is in charge of training and education for the department.
"We changed the round that were using because the round that we were using did have penetration," Wagner said. "We found that it wasn't very effective."
Wagner says the department never had an problem with the new beanbags penetrating a suspect. But, the department limits the use of the weapons to distances of 30 feet or more.
"If you are extremely close and you fire our rounds, you could end up with a lethal round," he said.
In Howard County, about 20 officers carry beanbag rifles. In Baltimore County, 50 officers have the shotguns, according to Bill Toohey, a department spokesman.
"They are extremely valuable when you're not facing someone with a lethal weapon aimed at the officer or an innocent third person," Toohey said. "When you don't need to take a life, these are ideal."
Toohey said that in Baltimore County, the beanbag weapons have been used five times since 2002, mostly in situations where a person is suicidal.
But Michael White, a professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said there are limited situations where a beanbag rifle is called for.
"I don't think a lot of departments are moving in the direction of the beanbag rifle," he said. "Things like the Taser and Mace ... can be used in a much greater number of circumstances."
However, he said, "if it can save one person's life and it is used in an effective way, you can always make an argument that it is good to have officers using it."