Whether it’s Taser, Pepperball, chemical agents or “sock rounds,” virtually every U.S. law enforcement agency nowadays maintains some form of less-lethal tools in their inventory. For an agency that doesn’t currently have a less-lethal component, or an agency that’s looking to expand their program, this article will focus on extended-range kinetic energy impact munitions, formerly referred to as “bean bag rounds.”
Over the past two or three decades, impact munitions have evolved from square “ravioli” rounds, which were inconsistent in accuracy and performance, to drag-stabilized “sock” rounds, which are significantly more accurate and are more predictable in their performance. Additionally, the design and shape of today’s impact munitions make them substantially less likely to penetrate a human body than the earlier designs.
Due to these advances, coupled with virtually hundreds, if not thousands of lives potentially saved—and costly litigation averted—agencies across the U.S. have implemented less-lethal programs. The vast majority of patrol-based (and that is the emphasis of this article) programs rely upon the 12-gauge shotgun as the delivery platform of the specialty munitions.
How Many Tools?
Some question the need for yet another tool for officers to be tasked with. That’s a legitimate question, especially given the variety of force options already carried by uniformed patrol officers and the expense of training and outfitting with another tool. The best answer is simply, “Every tool has its own specific purpose. They all have capabilities and limitations.”
The limitation of most less-lethal tools is the extremely close range necessary for effective deployment (4–8 feet for most patrol-carried OC sprays and a maximum of 21 feet for Taser). Impact munitions are no different in that they too have capabilities and limitations. As with every tool we have at our disposal, we must work to exploit the capabilities and work around their limitations.
The greatest benefit of the extended-range kinetic energy impact munitions is that it allows a greater standoff distance than any of the other less-lethal tools. That distance provides a greater reactionary gap. Hopefully, that distance provides officers a position—both less-lethal operator and lethal-cover officer—behind hard cover, or at least an obstacle the suspect would have to navigate around.
Who Should be Trained?
The reality: Not everyone should be considered for a role as a less-lethal trained officer. In fact, with very few exceptions, most agencies’ less-lethal impact munition programs are composed of SWAT operators, crowd and riot control officers, and select patrol officers.
In some cases, these are the same people who shoulder multiple responsibilities. The old model of having only patrol sergeants trained to deploy less-lethal shotguns is, fortunately, a thing of the past. In most cases, their responsibility is more appropriately directed at coordinating resources to ensure a successful resolution of the incident rather than becoming a hands-on player.
So, what should be some of the considerations for selecting less-lethal trained officers? Certainly, sound judgment and the ability to make appropriate decisions in stressful incidents are important factors. Likewise, consider only officers who have demonstrated an above-average level of weapons proficiency—not only accuracy, but weapons manipulation as well. It makes no sense to provide yet another weapon system to someone who’s mediocre with what they already have.
Finally—though certainly not last in terms of priority—consider the candidate’s use-of-force history. Although most would immediately think I’m referring to the use of excessive force, which is a huge factor in the consideration process, I’m also referring to the officer’s potential unwillingness to use appropriate force. The reality: We work with some officers who may be physically, emotionally or mentally unprepared to use force against another human being. Aside from the fact these people should not be in law enforcement, they shouldn’t be considered for an assignment that will put them at a greater likelihood of failure, which could cost citizens or fellow officers their lives.
In the current economy, cost is always a consideration, especially when implementing new (or expanding existing) programs. An inventory of most police armories would likely reveal several “spare” shotguns. Another “free” source may be your department’s evidence locker (assuming your state and local laws allow conversion of weapons to law enforcement purpose once a criminal case has been thoroughly adjudicated). Cautionary note: Ensure a certified armorer conducts an inspection to ensure serviceability of the particular firearm prior to being considered for use.
Most major manufacturers (see box, below) provide less-expensive training rounds, in addition to duty ammunition. The majority of rounds expended during training can be the less-expensive training rounds, providing a cost-savings. The actual qualification and any rounds intended for deployment against suspects should be purpose-designed duty rounds.
Properly mark less-lethal shotguns so that they’re readily identifiable as a less-lethal platform. As an example, some departments paint the entire stock and forearm bright orange. Dedicated, sole-purpose less-lethal shotguns should be individually assigned to each trained officer. Consideration should be given to providing, or at least allowing as an option, a sling, weapon-mounted light and sidesaddle spare ammo carrier. Important: Less-lethal shotguns should never be carried in the same location as any lethal shotgun platform on the department. This means that if lethal shotguns are carried in the passenger compartment (between the front seats, etc.) of a department’s patrol cars, dedicated less-lethal shotguns should be carried only in the trunk. Locating lethal and less-lethal weaponry of similar function in close proximity is a recipe for disaster in the real world of street patrol.
Like any meaningful law enforcement training, the less-lethal training should be provided by current certified instructors. A lesson plan should be followed and include relevant case law and department policy. A written exam and practical test—both weapon manipulation and scored accuracy assessments—should be administered. Last, regular (generally, annual) recertification should be required. All deployments should be reviewed and debriefed as learning opportunities. Successful deployments should be publicized via department press release as positive publicity to emphasize that the particular law enforcement agency, and profession as a whole, provides its officers with training and equipment designed to save lives—sometimes, the lives of criminals.
12-Gauge Extended-Range Kinetic Energy Impact Munitions Manufacturers