A SWAT team is called out to a barricade situation. A man holed up in his house claims to have a hostage, and negotiators are getting nowhere as the subject refuses to surrender. All of a sudden the man runs out of his house wielding a baseball bat over his head. What are SWAT's options?
Thirty years ago police would have most likely shot the man, either before or after he exited the building. Now tactical teams can employ multiple less-lethal options to help end such a situation at different points throughout an incident without employing lethal force.
"The first changes came many years ago with just the munitions themselves, and over time the munitions have evolved to be more accurate and dependable," says Sandy Wall, a former Houston PD SWAT team leader and the inventor of Safariland's WallBanger bang pole.
Originally developed by the military, "non-lethal" weapons were distinguished by their intent not to kill, in contrast with all other military weapons. Now a wide variety of weapons that law enforcement calls "less-lethal" is available to SWAT with different ranges and capabilities, and therefore different applications. Every agency has its own way of utilizing these tools, but some are better suited to certain situations than others.
When most people think of a SWAT entry, they picture a team decked out in all black head-to-toe gear carrying assault rifles and a battering ram. While serving a high-risk warrant requires having sufficient firepower on hand, less-lethal weapons serve complementary functions.
One such common tool in an entry team's arsenal is the flash-bang, or diversionary device, used to distract the subjects inside a residence. Throwing one inside a building might get the initial job done, but it can also be dangerous if not monitored.
Safariland's WallBanger is a "tactical utility pole" that holds a distraction device on one end so a team member can extend it into a window and deploy the device, then pull the pole back. This limits the effect of the sparks and heated body of the device that can ignite flammable items such as fabric or paper if it rests on them too long.
"We use the WallBanger to extend a flash-bang into a room, which provides us with about a six- to eight-second cushion to get through a door or get into the room with the subject," says Capt. James Brandon of the Corpus Christi (Texas) Police Department's SWAT team. "You still get the same effect from the diversion device, but because it's fastened to the end of the pole, the pyrotechnic threat doesn't exist."
The WallBanger, which extends to reach second-story buildings, has a breaching tip capable of breaking residential and commercial glass and can be shortened for "breaking and raking" debris around a window, says inventor Sandy Wall. It can also deploy chemical agents into a building at a safe distance.
"I went one more step and added a system where they can attach an OC canister to the pole-it's pressurized-and then they can run a hose to the breaching device and remotely deliver an OC fog formulation into the objective," says Wall. "I call it a tactical utility pole."
With its multiple uses, including explosive breaching, the WallBanger is a good example of a less-lethal device that SWAT teams must determine how and when best to deploy.
Of course there is no one right way to effect entry or to use any device. For the Gwinnett County (Ga.) Sheriff's Department, talcum powder rounds shot from a PepperBall launcher are the distraction device of choice, says Maj. Carl Sims.
After entering a building, most tac teams carry less-lethal options with them. It's common for one or more officers to be designated for this duty. Other agencies, such as the Calvert County (Md.) Sheriff's Office, equip nearly all tactical officers on a raid with TASER devices. If entering a residence, most teams prefer having a less-lethal weapon on hand that works well within small spaces.
"We don't use launchers for a vice raid or a search warrant," says Lt. Ricky Thomas of Calvert County's Special Operations Team. "We figure the average room you stand in is going to be 10 x 10 feet. You don't need the distance with that. So you use the TASER [X26] for that application because you use it up to about 21 feet."
Another smaller weapon used in SWAT entries is the PepperBall SA-4. This relatively new four-shot device uses PAVA rounds that can be deployed individually either on the ground to disperse a chemical agent in the air or as impact rounds. Unlike a traditional PepperBall launcher, it's small enough to be carried in addition to, not instead of, a lethal weapon on SWAT operations.
"As officers are doing their movement through a building and a guy confronts an officer with something that doesn't bring it up to a lethal force confrontation, the officer can transition to the PepperBall system and shoot a couple rounds at his feet. If they don't gain compliance, they can escalate force and go to direct impact with their other two rounds," says Monte Scott, national sales and training director at PepperBall Technologies.
While it's mostly used on people, the SA-4 can also neutralize any hostile canines on a call. "So far with the SA-4, we've only deployed it five times: twice on dogs, three times on people. And it's been effective on each occasion," says Sgt. Mike Parsons of the Tulsa (Okla.) Police Department Special Operations team.
Because Tulsa PD has a part-time tactical team, patrol officers assigned to the team carry the SA-4 instead of the standard PepperBall launcher so they'll be prepared for a tactical callout at all times on duty. "The biggest advantage is they're smaller and more easily accessible for patrol officers because they wear them right on their belt," says Parsons.