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Less-Lethal: Making Impact

Agencies seeking ways to prevent killing subjects are bringing back the bean bag shotgun and other methods for effecting blunt trauma from distance.

March 10, 2017  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Police File
Photo: Police File

The pressure on American law enforcement agencies to field tools that can subdue dangerous armed and unarmed individuals without using deadly force has never been greater than today. Officers are now operating in an environment where every police shooting is scrutinized by the public and the press not in terms of legal justification but in terms of necessity. And even officer-involved shootings where the suspect wielded a gun or fired at the officer can be ginned up as acts of excessive force and police brutality by anti-police activists.

The answer according to many experts is less-lethal weapons that can be fired from a distance and effect subjects with blunt force or chemical irritant or both. These tools are not new but the philosophy about using them, when to use them, and which officer should have them is changing.

There was a time about 20 years ago now when the beanbag shotgun was making inroads into patrol operations. The then new drag-stabilized sock round had overcome many of the issues agencies had with earlier designs of bean bag rounds. But there were some unfortunate incidents where officers fired lethal loads at subjects by accident and there was the general replacement of 12-gauge shotguns in patrol cars with patrol rifles, so the bean bag launcher became a specialty item. On many agencies its use was reserved for supervisors or even for tactical officers only.

Now that agencies are seeking alternatives to using deadly force in situations with armed subjects who are not immediately endangering officers or the public such as people trying to commit suicide by cop, they are taking a second look at less-lethal launchers that can fire projectiles to incapacitate or disarm subjects at ranges far beyond the capabilities of conducted electrical weapons. More importantly, the trend is to put these tools in the hands of first-responding officers.

Experts say there are three types of projectile-firing less-lethal tools that agencies wishing to upgrade the options available to their patrol officers are now fielding or considering for the near future: paintball-type systems, 12-gauge shotguns, and 40mm launchers.

Air-Launched Irritant

For nearly 20 years, PepperBall (www.pepperball.com) has been synonymous with the concept of using irritant filled paintballs in law enforcement, corrections, and military operations. The company's full-sized air launch systems are a common sight during riots, as they can fire more than 100 PAVA-filled paintballs on a single small tank of compressed air.

Now PepperBall is promoting the use of its newest products for patrol operations. Last year the company introduced the VKS (Variable Kinetic System), a select-fire paintball rifle with the look, feel, and fire control of an AR-15/M4. The VKS is a versatile less-lethal weapon that can fire Pepperball's paintball-style projectiles from a hopper or the company's more precise and harder hitting fin-stabilized VXR rounds from a magazine.

Glenn Katz, PepperBall's EVP of global sales, says the conical VXR round fired from the VKS is accurate out to 150 feet, provides twice as much blunt impact as the company's standard paintball ammo, and can carry the same payloads, including PAVA (an organic capsaicinoid powder), PAVA combined with CS, and/or marking dye. It's also easy to keep on target. "There's no recoil in a pneumatic system," Katz says. "So you can quickly stack rounds on top of each other at extended range."

PepperBall is also hoping to make its systems a fixture on patrol officers' duty belts. At this year's Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, the company introduced the TCP (Tactical Control Pistol). PepperBall's new semi-auto pistol fires VXR fin-stabilized rounds from a six-round magazine that contains both the ammo and a CO2 or nitrogen propellant cartridge, so the TCP can be quickly reloaded in the same manner as a duty pistol. The company says the TCP is accurate to 65 feet.

Katz says more and more agencies are asking about ways to provide air-launched less-lethal weapons to their patrol officers. "They are looking for options on the lower end of the force spectrum that will be effective and give officers greater standoff distance to keep them and the public safe," he says.

The Sponge Gun

If agencies are looking for a long-range less-lethal option that can deliver a wallop, they would have a hard time finding a more suitable weapon than the Defense Technology (www.safariland.com) 40LMTS. The 40mm launcher, which the press and some law enforcement agencies refer to as the "sponge gun," is accurate to 300 meters and can inflict blunt trauma at distances ranging from 1.5 meters (5 feet) to 70 meters (230 feet).

Safariland VP for Less Lethal Dave Dubay says he designed the 40LMTS to be the most accurate and effective less-lethal launcher on the market. The LMT in the launcher's product designation stands for Lewis Machine & Tool; the rifle maker produces the launcher for DefTech. "This is a precision weapon system," Dubay says. "It's made to the same exacting specs as an AR."

But the 40LMTS is considerably smaller and lighter than an AR. It weighs about 3.5 pounds and an adjustable Rogers buttstock gives the launcher a compact footprint allowing it to be carried up front in patrol vehicles. At this year's SHOT show, Safariland showed a Blac-Rac (www.blac-rac.com) gun rack for patrol vehicles with both a patrol AR and the 40LMTS locked in place. Dubay says the 40LMTS is not designed to be stashed in the trunk. "When you get out of the car and it's not right there, you are not going to the back of the car to get it out," he explains.

Ideally, patrol officers using the "sponge gun" will have lethal cover backup by other officers. However, patrol officers won't always have that ideal situation. Dubay says a lone officer needing to use a less-lethal impact round can wield the launcher on a sling and quickly transition to his or her duty gun in the same manner he or she would transition from an AR on a sling to a handgun. Officers also can quickly reload the single-shot launcher from a variety of carriers ranging in capacity from three-round buttstock caddies to 20-round bandoliers.

Despite the fact the muzzle of a 40mm launcher is quite intimidating, Dubay says it is a very safe option for effecting blunt force on a person. "Up close with a 12-gauge impact projectile you have to worry about energy density and penetration. For a 40mm impact projectile to penetrate you would have to shoot it at very high velocity."

DefTech makes a wide variety of munitions for the 40LMTS and other 40mm launchers, including the company's new four-shot model. The most popular DefTech 40mm ammo for patrol operations is the ExactImpact sponge round, hence the name "sponge gun." Dubay says it is an extremely versatile round that provides point-of-aim, point-of-impact accuracy out to 100 feet and can be used safely as close as 5 feet. "The energy density on impact is the same. It's not like you get hit with a fastball at 5 feet and a balloon at 100 feet," he says.

Back to the Bean Bag

Defense Technology's 40mm launcher has been deployed for patrol operations with a number of agencies both large and small, including the Los Angeles and Dallas police departments. But Dubay says he realizes not every agency has the resources to acquire the tool. "I am not telling people to throw away their shotguns and 12-gauge less-lethal rounds," he says. "If I'm a small agency and I have 12-gauge shotguns then that is what I am going to use.

Steve Ijames, a retired Springfield (MO) Police Department major and less-lethal weapons expert, is a big proponent of bean bag rounds and other impact munitions regardless of launcher. "If I have to deal with a guy at 2 a.m. holding a knife to his own throat, I will be begging for a bean bag launcher," he says. And he has a blunt message for law enforcement executives who have taken 12-gauge shotguns and other bean bag launchers away from their patrol officers. "If your officers don't have a spontaneous capability in the field for subject incapacitation beyond the range of a TASER, then you as a chief are derelict in your duty," he says.

Ijames is amused that agencies are promoting 12-gauge bean bags and other impact munitions to the communities they serve as if they were something new, but he's all in favor of the trend. "Everybody's got shotguns," he says, arguing for bringing the weapons out of storage and back into patrol cars so they can be used to prevent killing subjects when they can be incapacitated by less-lethal munitions instead. "In the hands of properly trained officers bean bag shotguns are a force multiplier and a life-saver," Ijames adds.

The growing popularity of 12-gauge less-lethal munitions in law enforcement is evidenced by the companies that are still producing them and the ones that are adding 12-gauge rounds to their product lines. PepperBall, best known for its air-launched projectiles, plans to introduce a line of 12-gauge rounds sometime this year. The shotgun munitions use primers and no powder to launch the company's PAVA-filled VXR fin-stabilized rounds at speeds of up to 325 feet per second. That velocity is about the same as the company's air-launched projectiles, but Katz says the company is answering customer demand. "Many of our customers have weapons closets filled with shotguns, and they wanted a self-contained VXR solution for them."

Tactics and Deployment

Ijames believes agencies shouldn't get caught up in the technology of the less-lethal weapon systems they use and should keep their eyes on the goal of reducing lethal shootings by officers. "Less lethal is a concept. It's not about the tools in the toolbox," he says.

Retired LAPD captain and less-lethal weapon expert Greg Meyer echoes that statement. "The technology is what we've got," he says. "Given that, the questions become how do you use them? When do you use them? When do you not use them? And what tactics are most effective for ending the incident before it degenerates into a deadly force scenario? The policy that has stood the test of time is that you use them when it is not a deadly force situation, but it's unsafe to approach the subject to go hands on."

Meyer, who started working with less-lethal weapons 35 years ago, says communication with the subject and with fellow officers is essential to successful deployment of less-lethal munitions to resolve an incident that could quickly escalate into a deadly force situation. And if time permits, he recommends that officers on the scene form a team.

Each officer in the team has to know his or her role, for example, verbal communication with the subject, lethal cover, and less-lethal deployment. To achieve that level of coordination, training and cross-training are essential. "On scene it becomes critical that each officer know his or her role and that whoever is in charge assign duties to the team," Meyer says.

That person in charge does not have to be a supervisor, Meyer says. "I've always believed front line officers should be equipped with less-lethal weapons. We've seen case after case where the supervisors were the only ones with the TASERs or the bean bag guns and they arrived too late for those tools to be used."

Dubay makes that argument to agencies all the time and some are very receptive of the message. "You have to equip your patrol officers with viable tools to do the job," he says. "Preventing the need for the use of lethal force is a great thing for everyone—the agency, the subject, and the community. Nobody wins in a lethal force encounter."

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