Less Lethal Lessons, Part II

Welcome back to our discussion on less lethal munitions. In case your memory span is becoming severely challenged like mine, last month we covered some important aspects of less lethal munitions. The big focus of that piece was the need for accurate use in combination with properly trained instructors. They in turn develop the cops who deploy these problem solving munitions.

For those of you responsible for this training, a basic understanding of body mechanics when less lethal projectiles impact is a good place to pick up this learning process. A negotiated cooperation from the suspect is the most desirable, as we don’t even have to worry about injuries when this takes place. But in the less lethal world, our goal is to normally gain compliance through some reasonable level of impact pain. Unless the suspect’s actions justify it, this should not be a potentially lethal solution. We know that the chest or “center mass” is the preferred lethal aiming point. But this is not always true for projectiles like the 12ga bean bag and the 40mm sponge round. Frequently, it serves our purpose better to aim for areas such as the arms and legs. The pain generated can often be convincing enough to lead to a suspect in custody.

What Lies Beneath
When training officers for less lethal deployment, it would be useful to discuss what lies beneath the suspect’s clothing. Due to the kinetic energy of a round’s impact, the skin and the blood vessels just below it are subject to abrasions and contusions on a fairly regular basis. Bones and arteries, heart and lungs, liver and kidneys, head and spine are of more concern. A mechanism that can and has caused lethal results is the transfer of kinetic energy to the vicinity of vital organs including the heart and the brain. Just because the bean bag or sponge round stops upon impact doesn’t mean that its effects have ceased as well. Instead, this blunt force continues with—in layman’s terms—a “shock wave” effect, causing movement of tissue starting with the bones. A synergistic effect now comes into play. For example, if the chest structure is strong enough to absorb that forceful collision, then the results may again be relatively benign. This has happened numerous times with no resulting deaths, but not always.

However, if the impacting force is too great and/or the bean bag or sponge round is traveling too fast when it strikes a less than robust chest region, things may get worse. The sternum and other bone structures may crack or splinter, resulting in fragments forced into the vital organs, such as the heart. Even if the chest region remains intact, another potential lethal result is that the heart or arteries do not always tolerate the impact-generated movement of tissue. The latter may tear or at least weaken with possible fatal results developing in the future (think police-created aneurism). In the cardiac region, this can result in bad body karma, such as lacerations to the heart and major blood vessels.

Chest Thump
An example of this process can be understood by looking back at automobile fatalities: Before the advent of seat belts and airbags, a vehicle’s steering column was a common source of blunt force trauma, often to the lethal max. Upon sudden deceleration (hitting another car head on, for example) the driver’s chest could be forcefully thrown against that metal column at the steering wheel’s center. This focused blunt force impact often resulted in serious injuries and death. While there are a number of variables that we do not have room to discuss here, I think this illustration gives the instructor some basic grasp of what may—but not always—happen with less lethal munitions to the chest.

What’s the Risk?
The point of this discussion is to help educate officers on the potential for injury when less lethal munitions collide with a human body. It is a risk management thing focused on using this force option in an optimal manner through an assessment of the suspect. Depending upon his or her actions, it may still be quite reasonable to target the chest area, but there should be a thought process behind this aiming decision. Officers should be aware that it does hold the potential to cause serious injury or worse. Some years back, three old style square bean bags penetrated—yes, penetrated— an elderly man’s chest as he held a handgun at his side. I’m good with center mass targeting in this case, especially since officers had patiently tried standard alternatives, including asking him to surrender and deploying bean bags to other areas on his body. He was an alcoholic, very thin and in poor health. After he was in custody, a surgeon removed the bags, surely saving his life.

At another large agency, officers again targeted a suspect’s chest. There was a problem, however, in that he was wearing a heavy gold chain and medallion that could surely be described as a “Mr. T Starter Set” (watch reruns of The A-Team and you’ll get it.) As ample evidence of the “What could possibly go wrong?” side of police work, a bean bag hit the medallion just right—or, more accurately, wrong. This caused the metal disc to slice into the suspect’s chest straight to the heart. As you might guess, both the suspect and his heart stopped what they were doing. He died as a result of this impact. Both of these stories are surely risk management issues that can be passed on to officers .

To OIS or Not to OIS?
An important side bar: Once the older suspect with the internalized bean bags was on his way to the ED, officers at the location failed to recognize the significance of what just happened. Evidence, such as numerous other bean bags and shotgun hulls, was picked up; no photos were taken, no diagrams made, the shotgun used was returned to service and nothing other than a patrol level cursory use of force investigation was initiated. In court, defending against the resulting lawsuit, this lack of due diligence did not sit well when compared with the seriousness of the injuries and standard law enforcement lethal force procedures.

The department’s officer-involved shooting protocols should have been immediately instituted, including “freezing” the crime scene at the time the suspect was in custody and bringing in the appropriate investigative units. If your less lethal policy doesn’t address this scenario, adjust it soon so that the same mistake doesn’t repeat itself. What’s that saying? “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Body Simple
As a targeting alternative, other body parts may be more appropriate when the subject’s behavior does not equate to delivering a center mass hit. Again, the arms and legs are good options. It’s even suggested that if a stationary suspect is holding a knife or other weapon, targeting the offending hand may be at least initially a better point of aim than the chest. Because of the bones and nerve endings, the pain generated may be substantial and, in turn, defeat the suspect’s grip on the object. That would be a good thing. The officer should understand, however, that it may take more than one hit. A knifewielding parolee holding off police in Riverside, Calif., took a number of bean bag hits to the hand and lower arm before he finally dropped his edged weapon.

Suspects Decide
We have to recognize street reality, as the use of less lethal munitions on a suspect may have a reverse effect. In essence, our intent should be to deescalate rather than going deeper into the force continuum. We want to get that person into custody with reasonable force, right? But we also have to be prepared for the suspect’s failure to get the message—he might elect to escalate instead.

One example starts with an individual standing in the middle of a busy downtown Los Angeles intersection. Maybe he’s just crazy or maxed out on questionable pharmaceuticals, but he has no visible weapons. Officers arrive and try to diffuse the situation through various means including talk—the best option. They really don’t want to harm him. No luck. And then the pepper spray comes out with disappointingly similar results. The suspect just stands there exhibiting his bad manners through his failure to comply. Rather than trying handheld impact weapons, which would take officers in too close, 12ga bean bags are launched, finding their mark. Still no compliance. Suddenly, the suspect charges at the less lethal officer. The fight is on and it takes a blue suit pile on to finally get the suspect off to jail. The lesson learned over and over again is that while we hope to end things in a certain manner, the suspect has a vote as well. Being prepared for similar unpredictable behavior should be part of the less lethal training objectives.

Medical Policy
Regardless of the body area impacted, once that person is in custody, a medical examination should take place as soon as is reasonable. Unless your officers have the initials “MD” (Standing, perhaps, for “mucho dinero?”) next to their names, they are not qualified to make such an evaluation. A paramedic or, better yet, a doctor should be the ruling decision-maker. Often the extent of injury consists of just abrasions or contusions (also known as bruising) representing bleeding due to ruptured blood vessels below the skin. However, the earlier discussion of what can go wrong upon impact—even though there may not be any external indication, such as with penetrating wounds—is a determining factor that each suspect must be medically cleared. This should be spelled out in department policy.


The one exception is that the medical mandate does not and cannot apply to people who get a taste of kinetic energy, but flee from the scene before they can be taken into custody. It may seem like a small, irrelevant concern but put on your “let’s play defense attorney” hat and examine this a little more closely: If the policy requires that all individuals who become less lethal reception zones should be medically examined, but one such person gets away, this might be twisted around through defense attorney legalese. In front of a jury, the claim might be that we violated our own policy by failing to go to possibly extreme lengths in trying to find that suspect and render the required medical attention. I know, I know, this seems like a stretch. I just think it seals up nicely one area of legal attack that may come at your department.

Before closing up and until next month, I want to share a personal note. I’ve been writing this column for a length of time equivalent to 10 trips around the sun. The opportunity to do so came to me through the efforts of Dale Stockton. He recently left his position as Law Officer Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, moving on to new challenges. I want to publicly thank him for the trust he displayed in bringing a crazy, retired old fart like me on as one of his columnists. It has been an honor to work for him. I also want you to know that he will continue to work on the Below 100 project, which is a blessing for all of us. He helped create this program and its end result is that more cops will live to a well-deserved retirement. Thanks, Dale, and best of luck! Train Safe. God bless America.

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