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Mentally Ill and Dangerous

Knowing the signs of mental illness can help control an unpredictable confrontation.

November 01, 1996  |  by Michael P. Flynn

The testing and evaluation of less-than-lethal weapons intended to incapacitate a suspect with minimal potential for death or serious injury has been well-documented in recent years. Police officers often do not have the neces­sary force options at their disposal to handle the variety of situations they encounter. It is no good to just contain the subject. Departments must consider devices that will tem­porarily incapacitate without allowing the subject to respond violently when officers get in close.

Use of less-than-lethal force options include electronic devices, kinetic energy weapons, such as the popular bean­bag round or the 37 mm launcher, baton rounds and pepper sprays. You must be properly trained in the use of any less-than-lethal tool. They all have the potential to cause death. The main objective of training is to avoid unnecessary vio­lence and the possibility of civil litigation against you and your department.

The taser uses compressed air to launch tiny barbed probes attached to 15 feet of wire that are propelled at about 200 feet per second and release 50,000 volts. The pulsating electrical output causes temporary incapacita­tion of the muscles, resulting in a loss of balance. The probes can penetrate clothing, including a leather jacket.

Another less-than-Iethal option is the bean bag round, which can be delivered through a 12­gauge shotgun and has a 40-gram lead shot payload. These bags exit the barrel at about 300 feet per second and deliver 120 foot-­pounds of kinetic ener­gy upon striking the target. The pain and shock of the round's impact hopefully will render the subject unable to continue the violent and aggres­sive action. The impact has been compared to a sucker punch from a professional boxer. To understand what 120 foot-pounds means, compare it with other known sources.

A thrown fastball delivers 97 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. A 38 special, 158-grain lead delivers 377 foot-­pounds. And a PR-24 baton with power spins equals 900 foot-pounds.

A minimum 10-yard distance between the officer and subject is recommended when using the bean­bag round. A reasonable standard for accuracy with the 12-gauge sys­tem is a 6-inch group at 12 yards. Do not aim at vital areas such as the throat. Although this type of projec­tile has been used successfully by many departments, it can be deadly at close range. Anyone struck with a beanbag round should be restrained and transported to a med­ical facility.

Launchers capable of delivering accurate blunt trauma-inducing baton hits or combination baton/chemical rounds are another good alternative to using lethal force. The baton round can now be used with outstanding accuracy. It is approximately 4 inches in length and 1 inch in diameter, and is delivered from a 37 mm rifled-bar­rel projectile launcher. This tool is field-proven and very accurate.

The use of wood or plastic baton ammo is nothing new. In the past, limiting factors have been length and accuracy. At close range and if strik­ing the right part of the body, the force can kill.

Many departments recommend using OC spray on subjects who do not comply. Officers must be aware, however, of the limita­tions of OC products. The greatest need for pepper spray is when the subject is extremely violent. But unfortunately, the violent subject is the least likely to be slowed down by pepper spray. It does not always work, especially if your subject is high on drugs or mentally ill. People with high tol­erance for pain or vio­lent goals can work through the spray.

Following guidelines

A police officer must know what to expect when dealing with the mentally ill because of the poten­tial for violence. You must realize you are not in control of any suspect's actions. This is more true when you take an abnormal person into custody, so be prepared to act accord­ingly. No known less-lethal option is infallible. Have a back-up plan to escalate the use of force when necessary. Expect unusual or bizarre behavior that can, in a heartbeat, change from yelling to extreme physical violence.

Many departments minimize the dan­ger potential in all confrontations by adopting safety priorities. Establish­ing priorities restricts liability when you have attempted to do your duty to the best of your capabilities. It clearly tells whose safety you are responsible for and in what sequence you can and will act. Officers are responsible for the safety of these groups in the following descending order:

 I) hostages

2) innocent bystanders

3) officers

4) the suspect(s) or subject(s)

Knowledge and understanding of these priorities help you make a deci­sion on the level of force necessary and eliminates hesitation. A department can then stand behind the victim and you -not the criminal or subject.

Use of force is always determined by your agency's policy. Officers must be guided by state and local law regarding the incarceration of mentally ill subjects.

You, the officer on the street, must have a contingency plan on not only the use of force, but also on how to escalate the use of force. Remember, our prima­ry goal is to deal with the mentally ill and all persons we contact in a con­structive and humane manner.

Michael Rynn, a retired police officer, served with the City of Wyoming (Mich.) Police Department for 25 years and was the president of the West Michigan Tactical Officers Association.

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