Nonlethal weapons: Early use means fewer deaths and injuries

by Greg Meyer

The aggressive use of available nonlethal weapons early in standoff confrontations predictably results in fewer and less severe injuries to suspects and officers. The usual tactical alternative of prolonging the standoff frequently leads to the use of more injurious degrees of force, including deadly force.

The police, in well-meaning but ineffective efforts to resolve standoff confrontations without force, sometimes literally talk some people to death.

When you use your nonlethal weapons properly, you will see a tremendous decrease in injuries to officers and suspects, reduced personnel complaints, reduced liability in lawsuits, and an improved public image for your law enforcement agency.

So how do you achieve that?

The vast majority of nonlethal weapon incidents involve unarmed suspects who exhibit resistive, violent, or bizarre behavior, thus presenting a significant safety threat to themselves, others and the officers whose job it is to intervene.

Many officers around the world have suffered major incapacitating injuries and even death while attempting to take into custody persons under the influence of PCP, an animal tranquilizer known for giving human users "super-human" strength.

It is not unusual for the most aggressive efforts of five or six officers to be inadequate to control a single PCP suspect without serious injury to several of the involved parties.

A police officer was disarmed and shot in the face by a naked man who was under the influence of phencyclidine (PCP). Four police officers responding to a single incident suffered an assortment of broken bones and concussions at the hands of a naked PCP suspect.

Another officer shot and killed a naked man on PHP (a PCP analog); the man had twice taken the officer's baton and was about to overpower him. A deputy sheriff was disarmed and shot to death in a fight with a PCP suspect.

All of those incidents happened in Southern California.

The suspects in these cases were experiencing what we now call “excited delirium.” They were basically “flipped out.” A future article will explore this phenomenon in more depth.

Going back an entire generation, on January 3, 1979, an emotionally distraught woman was shot and killed when she attacked two Los Angeles Police Department officers with an eleven-inch butcher knife. The officers shot her after repeated verbal efforts and the use of a police baton failed to control the situation.

In the wake of that incident, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners directed "continued research into the use of intermediate weapons and/or control devices which have the potential to significantly reduce reliance upon deadly force."

On April 30, 1981, the LAPD adopted the TASER and chemical irritant sprays (CN and CS, in those pre-pepper days) as authorized nonlethal weapons. The enabling document, signed by the Chief of Police, stated the purpose of these devices:

    “Consistent with the Department's philosophy of using the minimum amount of force necessary to control violent suspects, the Department has tested and approved the use of certain nonlethal control devices. It is anticipated that the use of these devices will result in fewer altercation-related injuries to officers and suspects.”

These days, cocaine and methamphetamines result in excited delirium and the same types of violent encounters as PCP, which is also in use. We also now know that schizophrenic people who are off their medication can also experience excited delirium.

Many police use-of-force situations are sudden close-contact situations requiring immediate, instinctive response.

Other situations begin as "standoff" situations (with time for planning and maneuvering) but change to immediate-response situations if:

1. the suspect increases resistance;

2. if officers approach the suspect without formulating a plan; or

3. if officers do not take aggressive actions to control the suspect before the standoff situation deteriorates.

Force may be used to make an arrest, prevent escape, or overcome resistance. Force may also be used to protect oneself or protect another, including preventing the suspect from harming him/herself.

Ideally, an officer adjusts the level of force in response to the changing levels of the suspect's resistance, all in an effort to quickly overcome that resistance in a manner calculated to minimize injuries to all parties.

Nonlethal weapons should be used to aggressively take control of a deteriorating tactical situation:

1. prior to impact weapons and deadly force becoming necessary; or

2. when it is unsafe for an officer to move to within contact range of the suspect; or

3. when attempts by officers to control the suspect by conventional means will likely result in serious injury to officers, suspects, or both.

Some see nonlethal weapons as shooting avoidance tools. The concept of using nonlethal weapons to reduce the number of shootings by police is grounded in the belief that, in some situations, nonlethal weapons could control a suspect early in the confrontation, before an unarmed but resisting suspect has the opportunity to become armed and attack the officer.

Also, a suspect who is armed with less than a firearm (for example, a knife, bottle, or club) could be "zapped" with a nonlethal weapon before the suspect could attack. Officers must use extreme caution in these situations.

Lethal-force back-up is a must. Nothing works all the time.

Time (sudden attack versus a standoff situation) and distance (between the officer and the suspect) are the crucial factors in determining whether nonlethal weapons are appropriate for the situation.

In standoff situations, nonlethal weapons should be used aggressively to bring the situation to a conclusion as quickly as possible, before the situation deteriorates into a confrontation requiring a greater level of force.

Officers are sometimes successful using nonlethal weapons in sudden-attack scenarios. There have been instances where standoff situations involving the use of knives and other weapons which appeared to be about to be used against officers, as well as a number of suicide threats, were brought to swift conclusion through early, aggressive use of the TASER, pepper spray, and beanbag shotguns.

Nonlethal weapons technology allows us to create policy, training, equipment, tactics, and review practices that will lead to better outcomes in many dangerous incidents.

The technology brings with it “a promise and a challenge.”

The “promise” is that police and political leaders who see the value of this approach and who successfully implement it, will experience fewer and less severe injuries among officers and subjects, fewer citizen complaints and lawsuits, fewer disability pensions, and an improved public image for the law enforcement agency that is seen as trying to do the right thing.

The “challenge” is to do it right. Next time, we’ll take a deeper look at nonlethal weapons policy issues.

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