The Less Lethal Instructor

In 21st century law enforcement, the use of less lethal weapons as alternatives to other force options has become common. Compared with lethal force, these tools are often a preferred option for handling confrontations with the mentally ill, rioters, knife-
wielding criminals or suspects attempting “suicide by cop.” In the hands of properly trained operators, less lethal options—especially extended range, kinetic impact munitions—can provide law enforcement with a distinct advantage.

Less Lethal: The Ideal

At least since the Rodney King incident, law enforcement has sought the “Holy Grail” of force options: compliance and/or control with 100% effectiveness and minimal use of force.

Within the past decade, the list of less lethal manufacturers trying to meet this goal has grown significantly. More will continue to appear as companies do their best to sell their latest products as the most effective “must-have” for law enforcement. Some of these new products will be unrealistic for our purposes; others may be of considerable help. For the foreseeable future, however, it’s unlikely that we’ll put “phasers on stun.”

Like instructors in other use-of-force disciplines, the role of the less lethal munitions instructor is twofold. First, they must work to keep the department’s personnel up to speed in training. A foundation of relevant knowledge should be established in each newly assigned officer, covering such topics as significant deployment factors, human blunt trauma pain and injury dynamics, department policy, case law and safety concerns. From there, the instructor should work to help each officer maintain a prescribed level of less lethal awareness. Such training reinforces the important aspects of this tool that, with reinforcement, will lead officers to respond in an effective, decisive manner when their hand is forced.

Second, instructors should continually seek to expand their own knowledge to address new information and concerns. Within this context, less lethal instructors should also be familiar with the long-term ramifications of these munitions. This means that significant developments—especially where liability arises—must be identified and communicated. Information should be shared with the rank and file, as well as administrators when appropriate. A good example of this is the 9th Circuit Court case of Deorle v. Rutherford (2001DJDAR 2725). The decision focused on a less lethal deployment that resulted in the suspect losing an eye when the bean bag changed direction mid-flight. The court found the suspect wasn’t given sufficient warning prior to deployment. 

Teachable Information

A number of avenues are available to help you find relevant research to enhance less lethal training.

Of course, there’s the Internet. Many of the current manufacturers of less lethal weapons maintain Web sites that, although product driven, usually provide good information too. Additionally, generic law enforcement sites—such as California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO) and the National Tactical Officers’ Association (NTOA)—are available to their members. Example: The publication of a joint less lethal study by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and Penn State’s Institute for Emerging Technologies. Additionally, the NTOA has been engaged in building a nationwide database on the use of extended range kinetic energy munitions.

Instructors should also monitor the news and business media for less lethal topics (which can also be done via the Web). Law enforcement publications often provide deeper and more accurate information than general media sources.

Videos of less lethal deployments are especially valuable; through them, officers can review incidents and learn proper vs. improper techniques. Distributing copies of an article or showing a video clip to the department’s less lethal officers will add another dimension to a regular qualification/training process.

Networks of fellow law enforcement officers are a great resource. Agencies close to yours will most likely have their own instructors assigned to less lethal responsibilities. With a little effort, you can contact them and share information—to everyone’s mutual benefit.


The use of less lethal munitions has increased in the past few years, and the number of deployments will surely grow. We will likely see a steady increase in the number of emotionally disturbed persons showing up on our streets, as well as those suffering from drug-
induced psychosis. Proper training will ensure effective deployment, which will also help protect the department and the individual officers when their actions become the target of legal scrutiny, as happened in Deorle. 


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