- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

Some highly publicized police shootings have increased pressure to rely on less-than-lethal weapons, but the local law enforcement departments that use them question their effectiveness and practicality.

Ideally, less-than-lethal force is used by police to disarm suspects wielding knives, machetes or baseball bats, and also against fleeing felons, in barricade and hostage situations, domestic disturbances, prison uprisings and unruly crowds.

But Officer Derek Baliles, a spokesman for the Montgomery County, Md., police, said the difference between situations that can be handled with the use of hands, batons or pepper spray and the situations that require deadly force is simply too small to make alternative weapons practical.

"If we're going to bring a bean bag to a gunfight, it ain't going to work," Officer Baliles said.

Montgomery County police do not currently employ the popular forms of less-than-lethal technology.

In Prince George's County, Md., Cpl. Joe Merkel, a spokesman for the department, said police have had some success with the recent implementation of their less-than-lethal weapons.

Just a month ago, Prince George's police deployed Jaycor's PepperBall launcher, a paint-ball gun that shoots pingpong-ball-sized pellets of oleoresin capsicum spray, which has an effect similar to pepper spray.

"We're just trying to afford our officers as much support in the hopes of reducing injuries to the suspects or the officers," Cpl. Merkel said.

Currently, about 50 PepperBall launchers are on the streets, one per squad, and two officers per squad are trained in their use.

The county is adding that weapon to its growing less-than-lethal arsenal. It also uses the Wrap system, a straitjacket-like containment device administered by four officers and used to restrain individuals experiencing drug and/or mental psychoses, which can bring extra strength and the inability to feel pain.

The Wrap system has been successfully deployed four times in the three months it has been in use.

The department also is testing the Super Sock beanbag "bullet" and expects to start deploying that weapon around January.

The Super Sock is a 40-gram projectile made of a knit material and filled with No. 9 lead shot discharged from a 12-gauge shotgun. It fires from an optimum distance of about 5 to 20 yards with a velocity about equal to that of a major league fastball, enough force to stun a suspect and cause him to drop a weapon.

Craig Beery, the director of sales and training at Jaycor, manufacturer of the PepperBall line, said that the less-than-lethal force movement has grown in the past three or four years, as the public, the media and even the police have become increasingly intolerant of the use of deadly force.

But Charles "Bucky" Mills, a 25-year veteran of the Prince George's police who now serves as civilian director of training, resists the suggestion that Prince George's police have employed the new technology in response to a number of high-profile police shootings.

He notes that it takes about two to three years for a technology to go from a "good idea" to deployment, and that some less-than-lethal technology, such as capture nets, has proven to be ineffective and was rejected by his department.

In the District of Columbia, the Metropolitan Police Department which had the highest rate of officers shooting civilians per capita nationally in the 1990s tested and purchased some alternative weapons, such as rubber bullets, beanbag projectiles and pepper-spray launchers.

Shootings by police officers have dramatically decreased, from 12 shot and killed and 20 shot and wounded in 1998 to four killed and seven wounded in 1999. Two persons have been killed and five wounded so far this year.

But Lt. Nicholas Mudrezow, specialized training commander for D.C. police, flatly denies that less-than-lethal weapons had any part in the decline.

He said such weapons can be effective if officers are "given the luxury of somebody acting irrationally but not posing a threat to someone," but because of the weapons' situation-specific nature they have been largely impractical for the officer on the street.

These weapons continue to be deployed in the District, but just for special operations, like the demonstrations during the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings this year.

Only nine officers were trained in the use of beanbag projectiles last year, according to department records.

Instead, the department has focused on judgment training how to communicate with civilians and suspects to keep situations from escalating into confrontations.

"The problem with [non-lethal weapons] is if you're talking about the regular patrol officer, it really has to be on his belt. You don't have the luxury of calling timeout," Lt. Mudrezow said.

Alexandria, Va., uses non-lethal weapons in its everyday arsenal.

In August, a man holding a kitchen knife and bullwhip kept a dozen Alexandria police officers at bay in front of his home for more than an hour.

A marksman took Feliz Joseph Dsouza down with a $1,600 Sage gun, a new less-than-lethal weapon that fires batonlike wooden bullets.

Police in Fairfax County, Va., employ a wide variety of less-than-lethal weapons. Officers trained to use the Super Sock carry rounds in the trunks of their squad cars, and officers equipped with PepperBall launchers and Tasers which fire two darts and send an electric current through the person can be called in if needed.

Julie Hersey, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County police, said such weapons give officers "one more step before we have to use lethal force."

But Pvt. Hersey adds that these kinds of weapons only work because they are backed up by an officer prepared to pull out his weapon and use deadly force.

"We're not there to meet somebody with the same amount of force. We're going to beat them," she said.

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