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5 common non-lethal tools for the correctional officer

The ultimate purpose of less lethal weapons is to successfully disorient, distract and incapacitate threats


Less lethal devices are extremely important to help ensure the safety of correctional officers.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

As a retired correctional officer, I have come to expect the question, “What it was like being a female officer working in a jail with no gun?” My answer is typically that verbal communication skills are an officer’s best tool for inmate compliance. However, I always knew that when verbal communication was ineffective, a correctional officer has a variety of less lethal tools available for effecting swift and safe inmate compliance.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) established a program that offers correctional officers approved equipment that will protect both officers and inmate population by reducing the possibility of injury or death. NIJ has collaborated with experts including medical professionals, scientists and military personnel, with the intention of conducting research studies on different physical force options that are less lethal technologies.

The less lethal technology options currently approved by the NIJ for use in the corrections industry include conducted-energy devices (TASERs), chemical agents, impact and blunt force tools, as well as diversion and distraction devices.

1. Oleoresin Capsicum Spray

Oleoresin capsicum is the active ingredient agent in pepper spray. It is made from the same chemical that makes a chili pepper hot, but at much higher concentrations. This chemical is diluted with water, glycol and propellants such as nitrogen in order to conform to the legal requirements for law enforcement use.

A correctional officer typically works unarmeose contact with a viold except for their training, radio, handcuffs, and in many facilities, only a canister of pepper spray. Correctional experts report pepper spray to be one of the most effective and safe options for physical force against inmates which has no lasting effects.

Pepper spray was originally used by U.S. postal workers and the FBI to temporarily incapacitate humans and animals. In the late 1980s, pepper spray became more frequently used by law enforcement. Since correctional officers are not permitted to carry a lethal weapon on duty, long distance, less lethal devices are extremely important as coming in clent inmate can be life threatening to the officer.

The lachrymatory agent in the pepper spray swells up the eyes and mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract. The spray causes a temporary loss of vision and the eyes clamp shut as a result of dilated capillaries. The subject sprayed will typically drop to their knees and experience feelings of panic. These effects of pepper spray can last up to 45 minutes.

2. Diversion/ Distraction Devices

Noise Flash Diversionary Devices (NFDD) also called stun-munitions are capable of producing a thunderous sound in excess of 180-185dB. The “bang” and flash created by these type of devices are an option for high risk-high threat scenarios either in common dayrooms or outside in prison yards. NFDD can be divided into two categories, light- sound producing and chemical or ejecting.

The NFDD – or flash-bang – has become an essential tool of the trade for tactical operations in law enforcement. They are designed to produce dramatic pyrotechnics and thundering sound with the intention of providing a brief distraction without causing permanent injury. The flash-bang device can provide just enough time for law enforcement to move in quickly and take advantage of the opportunity created.

3. Impact and Blunt Force Tools

A long standing option of less lethal weapon choices are those which project blunt force rounds. The most common rounds are fired from a specially modified shotgun. The round projectile pellets transfers and disperses its kinetic energy into the target. The round is designed to cause pain but not penetrate the skin. Projectiles come in the form of beanbags, rubberized bullets, and even an pepper-spray encapsulated pellet.

Launchers can fire rounds ranging from 37mm to 40mm, where rifles fire rounds in the 18mm range. Launchers can easily fire the bean bag type of rounds and multiple shot rounds containing chemical agents temporarily incapacitating the subject so officers can contain the situation at hand.

4. Conducted Energy Devices

Conducted Energy Devices (CED) commonly referred to as stun guns, are a less lethal option used to incapacitate an inmate by causing involuntary muscle contractions. CEDs such as the TASER generate electricity through two barbed probes ejected from a compressed nitrogen cartridge. The electricity travels along the thin wires attached to the ejected probes and into the body overwhelming the normal human communication network. This causes muscle contractions and impairment of motor function. CED’s are an effective tool for compliance even from up to 15 feet away from the inmate.

5. Light

Another, newer less lethal concept is the use of bright light. Light has been used to distract and disorient people for years. Flashing a bright light in the eyes will temporarily disorient subjects, however, in the field of law enforcement light has generally been used only for a search tool.

Lately, the idea of using bright light as a less lethal weapon has been a topic of discussion. Light can confuse, disable, and dominate a subject. A small powerful flashlight which produces 200 lumens or more with a strobe capacity can be used. The light projected is so bright the inmate must turn away. The disorientation created by a flashing strobe light can be disturbing enough that the subject can’t see approaching officers. The strobe light can be used to mask an officers direction of approach and before the inmate can make a move, he is subdued.


Correctional officers are very aware that no device will completely eliminate the need to go hands on with an inmate when necessary. Defensive tactics proficiency is crucial as less lethal tools may not be readily available and you must defend yourself or others until backup arrives. The ultimate purpose of less lethal weapons is to successfully disorient, distract and incapacitate the threat, which will allow corrections officers to safely control the inmate with little or no injury to all involved.

Melissa Mann is recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years which included assignments in Corrections, Community Policing, Dispatch Communications and Search and Rescue. Melissa holds a BS in Criminal Justice and MA in Psychology with an emphasis on studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world.