Without a well-thought-out less-lethal program, officers armed with such tools as less-lethal launchers are a risk to themselves and their community. Photo courtesy R.K. Miller
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During the 1990s, my city went through a series of summers where our less-than-model citizens felt they were entitled to engage in riotous behavior. Powered by alcohol and testosterone, their actions often required aggressive police action to restore order. At the time I was a SWAT team leader. We were part of the mobile field force response instructed to stop the street madness.
One summer, 12-gauge beanbags had just been developed for law enforcement. When a manufacturer’s rep provided some rounds, I thought we had an additional tool to deal with the rioters.
During a night of knuckleheads trying to take over the streets, I issued some of these to two team members with instructions to stay with me. If I directed them to use less lethal, they were to fire at the designated suspects. Fortunately, the opportunity never presented itself.
As our less-lethal program developed and matured, I recognized how flawed this plan was. We had no less-lethal policy or procedures. The officers involved had no experience with these rounds, and we didn’t even think about making sure we put the right ammunition in the shotguns. There were no safety and operational guidelines, let alone a defined training program. We lacked any semblance of understanding of the broader tactical aspects attached to incorporating less lethal. More importantly, when it came to liability exposure, it could place officers and the department in a potentially bad situation. Big mistake. Not too long after that summer, policy, procedures and training were adopted to fill this less-lethal vacuum.
What Is “Less Lethal”?
From my experience, the term “less lethal” sometimes creates a complacent attitude among police officers of all ranks. Managers may not grasp that these munitions are still capable of causing serious injury or death. At the other end of the spectrum, officers may be complacent when it comes to less lethal because of the connotation. (I personally prefer “extended range, kinetic energy impact munitions” but “less lethal” is more widely used.) A good training program can help prevent this from becoming a lawsuit-generating issue.
This includes adopting safety rules specific to less-lethal use. Most of you are familiar with the cardinal rules of firearms safety. What follows can be used to augment these in the less-lethal realm. As a side note, I tend to use “less-lethal launcher” more than, for example, “shotgun.” This is because the launcher has a different intent attached to it. Using the right words is a liability-driven concept similar in philosophy to not calling a diversionary device a grenade. In both cases, the terminology is more precise to the purpose of the tool.
Rule 1—Treat all less-lethal launchers as if they’re loaded. Never assume their condition.
This rule means that the operator is positive that the launcher will work as intended. Not only that it’s loaded, but that the safety—if there is one—is recognized and used appropriately. By extension, it also means that the launcher has been function checked prior to going on duty to ensure it’s in proper working order.
Rule 2—Be absolutely sure that your launcher is loaded with less-lethal munitions only.
It’s happened too many times. Officers don’t check their launchers and bad results ensue. In one case, an officer asked for a less-lethal launcher, a 12-gauge shotgun. This was at the end of a vehicular pursuit, in which the suspect refused to follow instructions. Prior to the first officer firing, no one checked the weapon he was handed. It turned out to be a shotgun loaded with lethal rounds. The suspect died, and it was extremely hard to justify why.
In another incident, an officer didn’t pay attention as he prepared his less-lethal shotgun at the start of shift. Later in the day, he responded to a call of a man with a knife. The officer fired a total of four times. Only after the subject was in custody and bleeding from multiple wounds did a near-fatal fact become clear: The officer had loaded lethal buckshot ammunition.
This may have evolved from the way he kept less-lethal and lethal rounds in close proximity. It was compounded because he failed to inspect each round as they were loaded. Add to this a lack of situational awareness: He didn’t recognize the difference in recoil and sound signature as he fired what he assumed were less-lethal rounds. Modern medicine saved the subject’s life, but the injury and accompanying legal issues prove the importance of following this rule. Be absolutely sure of it.
Rule 3—Master Grip: Finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you make the decision to deploy less lethal.
Conventional firearms safety rules reflect some version of this statement. The key change here: The emphasis on deploying less lethal rather than firing. Although this is a small change, it can be critical. Using the same rules for lethal firearms as for less-lethal weapons can create a contradictory and confusing environment, affecting the officer’s operational awareness and potentially undermining the core purpose of a Master Grip. Beyond that, it could be difficult to explain in court why a particular training program used the lethal firearms safety language when applied to a less-lethal program if an unintended result, such as a serious injury of death, results.
Rule 4—Laser rule: Never allow the muzzle to cover anything that you don’t intend to deploy less lethal against.
Similar to the last discussion, this statement is modified from the more traditional, “Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you do not intend to destroy.” This change reflects the fact that less-lethal munitions—not lethal rounds—are in play. However, the same basic principal applies. If you aren’t justified in pointing a less-lethal launcher at someone, don’t do it. It may seem trivial to change just a few words. Trivial—until you have to defend the way you teach safe launcher handling as part of your less-lethal program.
Rule 5—Communicate prior to deploying less lethal.
The potential for sympathetic fire is a significant concern when it comes to using less-lethal munitions in a tense situation. Picture this: You’re dealing with a man holding a knife. Animated and very vocal, he isn’t cooperating with attempts to negotiate him into compliance. You’re the less-lethal officer. It’s rapidly reaching the point where you know that in order to end this, the extended range kinetic energy impact munitions in your launcher may soon be hammering this person. An officer next to you is “guns up” as lethal cover. Glancing at him, it’s obvious that your partner’s mindset is getting a little edgy because the suspect isn’t doing what he’s being repeatedly ordered to do. Just prior to putting the front sight on the desired target area and pressing the launcher’s trigger, you announce in a loud voice, “Bean bag up!” or “Less lethal!”
Peripheral vision picks up the partner’s body language as he reacts to this information. Next, your 12-gauge beanbag or 40 mm sponge round hits the suspect in the desired target zone. He drops the knife. The cover officer still has his handgun at the ready but hasn’t fired. This is because the announcement heard prior to your shots alerted him that only less-lethal rounds would be fired. It makes less-lethal sense to prevent sympathetic fire whenever possible by letting other officers know what’s about to happen.
Rule 6—Be sure of your target, backstop and beyond.
When it comes to less-lethal use, the desired target zone isn’t necessarily going to be center mass as with standard lethal firearms use. Although center mass can be used as a less-
lethal point of aim in serious or lethal circumstances, alternative body areas should also be considered as part of the deployment plan. Example: For a stationary subject armed with a knife, hammering the hand with impact projectiles from a safe distance may be a more appropriate force option. I’d rather see a hand broken—forcing the suspect to drop the weapon—than a less-lethal blunt force trauma to the chest, which could cause a rib to fracture, driving a fatal bone fragment into the heart.
Depending on the subject’s actions, aiming for the extremities may be a good bet. Hitting the legs or arms can be a more balanced force application because the risks of serious unintended injury are minimized. If you think about it, this approach is probably already present within your department’s authorized hand-held impact weapons strike zones. Using these as a starting point can simplify an officer’s understanding of where to aim a less-lethal launcher. One visual representation used for less-lethal training is a full-body target with the different zones in red, yellow or green. Potentially lethal areas are colored red while the extremities—our primary target zones—are in green. Yellow indicates secondary target areas such as the abdomen. These targets are available from various companies including Alco Target (www.alcotarget.com).
It’s a given that officers will be using less lethal for some time to come. When this happens, our goal is that the projectiles should hit the intended person and no one else. This is Firearms 101: “We own every round we fire, or it will own us.”
An object lesson for less-lethal instructors to share is the death of 21-year-old Victoria Snelgrove. She was hit in the eye by a less-lethal projectile, which penetrated her brain. This came during celebrations over the Boston Red Sox winning a baseball championship. By all accounts, Snelgrove was an innocent participant and not a specific, justified target. She died of her injuries. The tragedy was most likely caused by an officer who wasn’t properly aiming his less-lethal fire. When it comes to being sure of the backstop and beyond, it doesn’t matter whether lethal or less-lethal force is being used. As much as possible, making sure of where the round will go does matter.
I started off by confessing my own improper approach to less lethal. I’m lucky I didn’t get slammed with “What-the-hell-were-you-thinking?” questioning; I surely would have if a worst-case scenario developed that crazy summer night. I’ve learned a lot since then. This article is intended to share some of those lessons. There have been too many incidents where officers have not been trained in these six basic less-lethal safety rules. My hope is that these guidelines will be adopted in one form or another appropriate to your agency. Through them we can do a better job of minimizing the potential for a less-lethal program to turn tragically lethal.
Train safe. God bless America.
R.K. Miller retired from the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department as a lieutenant after 30 years of service in a variety of assignments, including FTO, trauma support, beach detail, detective, SWAT and field supervisor. He serves on staff at the Golden West College Police Academy as an instructor and officer in charge of the SWAT Academy, is on the California Association of Tactical Officers Board of Directors and is an instructor for the NRA Law Enforcement Activities Division and his own company, National Training Concepts Inc. (www.ntc-swat.org). Miller holds a bachelor’s degree and is a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. He currently serves as a reserve officer with the Orange (Calif.) Police Department. Contact him at email@example.com.