Police now carry guns, badges ... and beanbags

North Miami police officers burst into a South Florida home recently to find a domestic disturbance on the verge of turning deadly. A man was holding a knife to his throat and toting a gun in his waistband.

The man ignored police orders to drop the weapons. When it appeared he was going for his gun, an officer made a split-second decision to shoot. The result: The man suffered a large bruise.

Welcome to the growing world of nonlethal weapons.

In this case, police didn't use a revolver. They used a weapon that shot beanbags - golf-ball-size bullets filled with lead.

While law-enforcement agencies have been experimenting with them for years, nonlethal weapons are now becoming a standard-issue presence in many squad cars as concern grows about the use of "excessive force."

Headlines about suspects killed during conflicts with police in cities like Miami, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati are spurring hundreds of law-enforcement agencies to adopt the high-tech weapons, some of which shoot rubber or pepper bullets.

While research shows that the devices are far from foolproof, police believe they can be invaluable in subduing dangerous suspects - and even help avoid a lawsuit or two.

"If we didn't have the beanbag weapon, he probably would have been shot," says Stephen Stepp, assistant police chief in North Miami, of the man who was subdued and then taken to a mental hospital for treatment. "This is a perfect scenario of where the beanbag shotgun's less-lethal force worked."

Tasers, which fire electrified darts, are also gaining acceptance as nonlethal alternatives for subduing dangerous suspects. The Advanced Taser costs $400. It fires two electrified darts that can travel 21 feet and stun a suspect with up to 50,000 volts.

"For the first time in history, we are starting to gain technologies that will provide us the ability to use less-lethal force in resolving what have historically been lethal situations," says Sid Heal, a captain in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD).

Because of that shift, he predicts that the way police departments work will "change more dramatically over the next decade than in the last two centuries."

Already, Los Angeles equips every radio car with some form of nonlethal weapon.

Yet experts say the weapons can still cause serious injury, death, or, in the case of the Taser, extreme pain.

Some agencies are shying away from them. "These weapons can be fatal, and most of them don't fit our needs right now," says Miami-Dade Police spokesman Ed Munn.

Hard to determine risks

The problem, experts say, is that reactions to the use of a weapon can differ with a person's size, gender, age, health, and state of mind. A weapon that is nonlethal to one person can be fatal to another. Some critics even insist there is no such thing as a nonlethal weapon.

Research done at the University of Southern California revealed one death and 44 serious injuries from beanbag bullets fired by Los Angeles police between 1996 and 2000. "Beanbag bullets can certainly do damage from more than the recommended range of 30 feet," says study author Dirk de Brito.

Given such risks, proper use is a prime concern.

"Sometimes police departments don't spend enough money on training," says Christopher Slobogin, a criminal law professor at the University of Florida.

Most nonlethal-weapon manufacturers offer training and certification with their products.

Jaycor Tactical Systems, developer of the Pepperball gun, mandates it. The launcher uses high-pressure air to deliver round bullets filled with pepper powder, which hit with a little more kinetic energy than a paintball. Officers are trained in the history of chemical agents, as well as targeting tactics, safe operation, and recommended ranges.

"We won't sell our product to an agency until they certify an instructor" to teach its proper use, says Monte Scott, Jaycor's Midwest trainer.

The Radcliff Police Department in Kentucky plans to equip all of its patrol cars with the Pepperball gun. Lt. Sam Ennis, a senior firearms instructor, says officers get more specialized training with nonlethal weapons than with traditional firearms.

Misuse ... and liability

Still, watchdog groups want stricter supervision of the weapons to prevent abuse. While human rights activists favor the development of nonlethal weapons, concerns persist about the potential for excessive use of force with any weapon.

"Nonlethal weapons can't be handed out like candy to officers without training, without supervision, and without serious control over their misuse," says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Some groups warn that, because they seem benign, weapons like stun guns and belts may be prone to misuse.

With electronic weapons, "it's torture at the touch of a button if they are abused," says Curt Goering of Amnesty International.

As the use of nonlethal weapons has risen, so has the the number of "excessive force" lawsuits. At least 10 police departments have been sued so far. Typically, says Mr. Slobogin, the police lose such cases.

But lawsuits can arise in cases of death - such as when a victim's family sues - as well as injury. To officer Heal, the key issue is not liability but life-saving potential. The first time the LASD used beanbag bullets in 1995, an officer fired on an armed man and shattered his elbow. The suspect sued the department, says Heal, but without a less-lethal alternative he might not have lived to file the suit.

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