Whether it's special operations, riot control, or a first-responder mission, less-lethal force options have played a vital role in securing a safer environment for conducting high-risk police operations. Less-lethal weapons, including chemical agents, diversionary devices, tasers, and bean bag rounds, have all proven successful in de-escalating life-threatening situations, controlling violent offenders, and reducing the use of lethal force by police.

Less-lethal munitions bridge a dangerous gap that has long existed within the police use-of-force matrix. And by exploiting the capabilities of less-lethal weapons and implementing them within a solid tactical framework, police officers can better manage situations that can lead to accusations of "officer-created" jeopardy; for example, a knife-wielding subject. They can also respond appropriately to special circumstances, including perimeter security; chemical munition protection; suicide by cop; animal control; and dangerous, defiant conduct.

Currently, the most popular less-lethal impact projectile in use on the streets of America is the 12-gauge bean bag round. The popularity of shotgun-launched bean bags can be attributed to a variety of characteristics that makes them extremely attractive as a police alternative to deadly force.

Chief among these is the popularity of the shotgun as a police weapon. It's no secret that the shotgun is a mainstay of the police arsenal and is commonplace in the majority of America's police cars. Also, shotgun proficiency is part of an officer's academy and in-service training.

Another benefit to shotgun-launched bean bags is the cost. In general, 12-gauge bean bags shells are significantly less expensive than other types of specialty impact projectiles. They can even be stored in existing shotgun ammunition holders.

However, it's important to note that even though 12-gauge bean bag rounds are the same size as conventional 12-gauge rounds, they will not cycle in a semi-auto shotgun and are usually fired from a slightly modified pump-action model. However, some departments fire bean bags from semi-autos and cycle them manually.

The familiarity of the shotgun and the less lethal nature of bean bag rounds may lead you to believe that establishing such a weapon system in your department won't require much planning. That's a false assumption. Before implementing a 12-gauge bean bag weapon system at your agency, you need to consider a number of issues, including equipment, who to train, weapon protocol, policy and procedures, and training requirements. The answers to these questions vary between agencies and trainers, but the following information represents basic concepts agreed upon by the less lethal training community.

Choose Your Weapon

There are a number of manufacturers and products that you can choose from for both the bean bag munitions and shotgun.

But an off-the-shelf shotgun is not your best choice for a launcher. For optimal shot delivery, your 12-gauge launcher should be equipped with an improved cylinder barrel. Depending on your needs, it can also be augmented with illumination, carrying, and after-market sighting systems.

Once you have the launcher, it's time to consider the ammunition. The shotgun bean bag is a target-specific, flexible, single projectile that is intended as a "point-of-aim, point-of-impact" munition. The bag itself, usually configured square or oblong, is often constructed of a cotton or nylon blend material filled with approximately 26 to 56 grams of lead shot. Velocity and energy transfer can range anywhere between 230 to 300 feet per second and 71 to 120 foot-pounds, respectively. Some bags have an effective range out to 60 feet.

Although the square bags have proven successful for many years, the newer (oblong) style offers a number of distinct advantages. The more aerodynamic design significantly enhances the projectile's accuracy, effective range, intended impact form, and energy transfer, all of which translate to a safer and more effective munition.

Manufacturers of 12-gauge bean bag munitions are numerous, with new companies bringing their own versions to market each year. So prior to purchasing a sizable quantity of a particular bean bag shell, make a comprehensive evaluation of what's available. Your evaluation process should include a review of product specifications, product research (if any), case histories, peer assessments, and self testing.

Training Protocol

It may not be necessary for every officer in your agency to be trained in the use of bean bag launchers. Also, not just any officer should be entrusted with bean bag duty. Street experience, good judgment, and proper training are essential in the effective and safe deployment of less-lethal weapons. Remember, the most important thing to know about bean bag rounds is when and where to shoot them.

It's not particularly difficult to teach officers when deadly force is appropriate. For instance, an officer may fire upon an individual who points a gun at him, without much consideration of such issues as the suspect's clothing, size, or distance from the officer.

In contrast, successful bean bag deployments hinge on these kinds of considerations. For example, a very large man may not be incapacitated by a shotgun bean bag, while a smaller man or woman could be seriously injured. Also, if a suspect is wearing heavy clothing, such as a winter coat, at least some of the impact of the bean bag will be absorbed by the fabric, diminishing the effect of the projectile.

In addition to physical stature and attire of the target, several other subject factors must be carefully assessed prior to a deployment. Spatial relationship, target availability, injury potential, contagious fire, and engagement-tasking (cover-contact) are all crucial factors that need to be considered in a bean bag action.

But just because bean bag deployment is a judgment call that doesn't mean that you should limit bean bag training to special ops officers. Many incidents, say suicide by cop, initially involve some form of face-off with patrol officers, so bean bag shotguns should be readily available to first-responders.

The best candidates for bean bag training are firearms instructors, field training officers, patrol supervisors, emergency response team members, and defensive tactics trainers. By training one or more of these groups in your department, you can maintain a sizeable number of qualified personnel who are immediately available should a bean bag deployment become necessary.[PAGEBREAK]

Lethal and Less Lethal

Contagious fire, storage location, proper munitions identification, and lethal cover are just some of the special considerations that need to be addressed when deciding which weapon system protocol best suits your agency's needs, both philosophically and operationally.

A dedicated weapon system ensures that a particular shotgun is designated as a less-lethal only launching platform and is usually marked for easy identification as such. A typical operating procedure usually delineates that the weapon and a predetermined number of bean bag rounds are stored separate from other armament. Protocol often mandates a pre-patrol inspection of this weapon system to ensure the readiness of the shotgun and the absence of lethal ammunition.

A major drawback to the dedicated weapon approach is that contingency planning with this system requires that an officer armed with a conventional weapon provide cover for the officer armed with the bean bag shotgun, especially in situations involving firearms. An obvious advantage to this protocol is that it safeguards against the inadvertent mixing of lethal and less-lethal ammunition.

Mixed use or "transitional weapon systems," are also being used by a number of police departments throughout the country. Procedures at these agencies include the "dumping" of lethal ammunition in lieu of less lethal rounds, a mixed stacking of both types of force options, and the use of a launching platform that can facilitate both lethal and less-lethal deployments.

The advantages to this system are readily apparent. It permits the immediate availability of either force option and deployment of a bean bag requires only one officer on the scene. This can be an important issue when support personnel are limited or non-existent.

Of course, an obvious concern with using the same shotgun for lethal and less-lethal ammunition is the potential discharge of unintended munitions. This mistake has claimed the lives of at least two suspects.

Although not always effective, nor always appropriate, shotgun bean bag rounds have become a valuable police intervention resource. The ability of these less-lethal weapons to de-escalate dangerous situations saves lives of police and citizenry alike.

Bean Bag Policy and Procedures

When implementing a bean bag weapons program, you need to develop an operational philosophy, define training and record-keeping requirements, and establish pre-deployment and post-deployment policies.

Pre-deployment concerns include:

  • Who is authorized to use the weapons?
  • Where will the shotguns and ammunition be stored?
  • How will guns loaded with bean bags be marked to avoid confusion?
  • Will you use dedicated or mixed-use weapon protocol?
  • How will bean bag launchers be made available to field units?
  • How will authorized bean bag trained officers be called to the scene?
  • What tactics will you use for lethal cover and apprehension?

Post-deployment concerns include:

  • Medical examination of the impacted subject
  • Reporting requirements (incident/use-of-force forms)
  • Evidence collection (audio, imagery)
  • Investigative criteria
  • Review process
  • Media releases

Larkin Fourkiller operates Fourkiller Consulting, a police tactical training company. He is a nationally recognized less lethal instructor and FBINA graduate who can be reached at www.fourkiller.net.

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