Shoot to not kill: Ferguson police test new 'less-lethal' guns

Police in Ferguson, Mo., where an officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in 2014, are testing a new device meant to fire a less-lethal projectile.

A recent string of police shootings involving unarmed suspects – some of them killed when officers fired many times at close range – has heightened the search for less-lethal methods of subduing individuals confronting officers.

The latest such effort is unfolding in Ferguson, Mo., where former officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots at Michael Brown, killing the black teenager last August. The Ferguson Police Department has begun testing a device attachable to pistols and meant to inflict pain without causing death.

The bright orange device, dubbed “The Alternative,” is the latest development in nonlethal weaponry marketed to police departments. Some officers call it a “Bozo round” because it looks like a clown’s nose. While previous iterations have been designed for crowd control, The Alternative is designed to slow an attacker. When the weapon is fired, the bullet embeds in a metal-alloy projectile about the size of a ping-pong ball, which absorbs some of the bullet's energy and decreases its velocity, according to manufacturer Alternative Ballistics, based in Poway, Calif.

In theory, at least, the metal alloy ball should leave a painful bruise or perhaps break a rib, subduing the person perceived by the officer as threatening, or at least confrontational, but not armed with a deadly weapon. It’s a one-time, $45 device attached to the muzzle of a handgun, meaning that subsequent bullets fired could be fatal. 

At this point Ferguson officials are not committing police budget or policies to the device, but they have agreed to try it out on the firing range.

"It gives you just one more opportunity to neutralize the subject without killing him," Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III told NBC affiliate KSDK. "But we also can't guarantee that they wouldn't be killed."

Over the years, devices meant to be nonlethal have become part of the law enforcement arsenal: tasers, beanbag rounds, rubber-coated bullets, and pepper bag rounds. While they have worked in many instances, such nonlethal devices also have failed to achieve their purpose in stopping threats directed at police. In some instances, Tasers meant to incapacitate individuals also have caused death.

The new device being tested in Ferguson, which has an effective range of about 30 feet, is designed to bridge the gap between nonlethal and lethal weapons used by police.

"It's not a beanbag and it's not a taser," Christian Ellis, chief executive of Alternative Ballistics, told the Riverfront Times alternative newsweekly in St. Louis. "I love those products and they have great applications, but they're designed for less than lethal situations. This is designed for a lethal situation."

"I'm not saying it's a nonlethal weapon,” he said. “I'm telling you it's a lethal force option."

Those whose profession can put them in dangerous situations where life-and-death decisions may be split-second are skeptical of the new device being tested in Ferguson.

"I have no problem with looking at any kind of new technology, but the thought of actually implementing something like this I think would be very dangerous for police officers because these situations happen very quickly and you'd better be ready," former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch told KSDK.

But for now, Ferguson police and civilian officials are willing to give it a try.

“Is it going to work every time? Probably not ... it’s not a catch-all,” Ferguson assistant police chief Al Eickhoff told The Washington Post. “Every situation is different. But it gives an officer, if time allows – and that’s important, if time allows – a chance to save a life instead of taking a life.”

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