Police need more nonlethal alternatives to firearms
Policing in the 21st century will be revolutionized by technology. Nonlethal weapons prevent fatalities, resolve difficult hostage situations, and save taxpayers money. Why are critics stalling their use, when police could be saving lives?
Use of lethal force to control criminals is one of the most difficult issues in policing and comes with heavy consequences for those involved.Skip to next paragraph
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In one of the toughest situations I ever faced as an officer, I once came across an irrational man who had parked his car in front of a busy electronics store in Canoga Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, two days before Christmas. After dousing his vehicle with gallons of gasoline, he stood up through the sunroof of his car, poured gallons more over his entire body, and then attempted to light himself and his car on fire with flares.
With a mass of holiday shoppers walking by unaware or simply ignoring the disturbing scene, and numerous potential victims who could have been engulfed in a potential fireball and explosion, my partner and I had limited alternatives: We could shoot to stop this person or we could try to dissuade him, which, if we failed, would very likely result in injuries to bystanders and ourselves. After a tense standoff and risky maneuvers, the situation was resolved without any injuries.
Recently, officers in my division responded to a domestic violence situation where the suspect was reportedly holding his two children hostage. It reminded me of the July 10, 2005, incident in which Jose Peña, high on drugs, used his 18-month-old daughter, Suzie, as a human shield during a shootout with LAPD officers. Both Suzie and her father were killed.
Incidents like these highlight anachronistic, ancient police practices that rely on lethal force. These lethal options sometimes end up with unintended victims, involve the police in lengthy and resource-intensive standoffs, and end up costing heavily in public support as well as in civil court judgments.
New technologies in the pipeline
Law enforcement agencies have made significant improvements in community policing and intelligence-led-policing, contributing to a consistent decline in violent crime. However, when it comes to the application of force and technology, we are still mired in primitive practices – especially considering that nonlethal (also called less-than-lethal) technologies exist. They can prevent reliance on brute force and can be used in the most difficult situations without injuring officers and hostages, and without permanently injuring a suspect.
Nonlethal weapons work on the principle of causing pain or physically disabling a suspect with the small likelihood of serious or permanent injury. These devices include chemical irritants with various delivery methods, Tasers and other stun devices, beanbag shotgun rounds, rubber bullets, and others. While exceptions do exist, nonlethal devices save lives and prevent serious injuries to suspects and officers when the only alternative may be to shoot and kill the suspect.
Through the years, I have seen or reviewed numerous incidents where nonlethal force devices were used. I have concluded that nonlethal weapons are far superior to the alternatives. Exceptions notwithstanding, nonlethal weapons do not cause permanent or major injuries; their use has much less liability compared with lethal weapons; and they save the police substantially in fewer injuries to the officers. While none of the nonlethal weapons currently in use could have helped in the case of Suzie Peña, technology already exists that could have prevented that tragic outcome.
Even better options, mostly emerging from military research, are in the pipeline, their use stalled due to their association with the military. It is time that we focus on the use of such technology in police force application.