Less Lethal Lessons, Part III

Let us talk extended range, kinetic energy impact munitions (or more commonly “less lethal”) one more time. While the two previous articles on this topic have been oriented more toward theory, history and physics, this offering will provide some suggestions on the actual patrol deployment of these munitions.

Statistics from CATO, IACP, LAPD, LASD, NTOA and RCMP from Sept. 2001 help get us rolling. Although some time has passed since these findings were published, they still give us a grasp of prior less-lethal deployments. For example, 61% of the less lethal engagements took place at less than 21 feet. Going out from there to a range of 42 feet, the percentage of engagements came in at 19. This is a little ambiguous, however, due to the fact that we know suspects do not always remain fixed in one spot during confrontations with police. As far as the frequency of rounds fired, the same study found that in 43% of the incidents, only one lesslethal munition was fired. Two shots were reported in 22% of engagements and 18% had a trio of rounds launched toward a subject. Like our previous statistics, there is an unanswered question: How many rounds impacted as opposed to how many total were fired and missed?

A final telling statistic was that 47% of these confrontations focused on suicidal subjects. I suspect if the same survey was done now, the percentage would be higher. At times, these troubled individuals either won’t or just can’t carry out the act of suicide. Instead they will draw law enforcement into their lives’ terminal point to resolve it for them. Some are just crying out for help. But more commonly, they want the police to do the job for them in a classic suicide-by-cop scenario. It is part of our job to try to prevent or stop such behavior. However, I have no respect and not a lot of compassion for those who force this issue upon officers who are just trying to serve the community. If their suicides succeed at the hands of our officers, the latter may have to deal with the consequences for the rest of their lives while the perpetrators are literally unreachable.

Patrol Tactics
With this accounting, let’s consider some of the planning and actions that went into the above police encounters as well as many others. In a sense, the planning focuses to some degree on the training provided to not just the less lethal folks but all patrol officers. Especially in the context of people on the verge of killing themselves, we know it will happen again and again in our line of work. Planning your response to this type of incident is an important aspect of a law enforcement instructor’s job.

Less Lethal Teamwork
It is a reality of police work that there will be times when one officer must choose between lethal force and less lethal options without the benefit of additional cops on scene to assist. When, however, there are others present to help take shots—sometimes literally—at resolving the problem, law enforcement has a greater chance of getting it right. That is definitely a good thing for all of us. With the field use of less lethal munitions, there are some suggested delegations of duties that may contribute to a successful resolution.

Less Lethal Officer
When cops select a less lethal option like bean bags or 40mm sponge rounds, it can become their primary focus. However, contingency awareness should be incorporated into their training. In the latter context, probably one of the worst case scenarios would be a less lethal launcher loaded with lethal rounds. Verifying—I mean really making sure, rather than assuming—is critical to a good resolution. Another tactical contingency is that the officers should be trained in what to do if there is a need (ineffective results, malfunctions, no more rounds, etc.) to switch to another force option. In the case of this contingency, officers should have trained in awareness to maintain control of their less lethal launcher rather than for example, dropping it to the ground as they transition. Along with teaching proper technique, a tactical sling attached to the launcher is a cheap but solid investment.

Who Is It?
Another aspect is that contingency awareness should obviously include an assessment of the person involved. With some, just having a less lethal tool pointed at them may prompt a surrender. But that is not always the case. A street thug “frequent flyer” or even a savvy criminal novice may anticipate kinetic energy impacts and take steps to defeat and/or deflect them. In another contact dynamic, some individuals—including the suicidal—may recognize that less lethal could disrupt their game plan. With those situations, it may be wise for the less lethal officer to even hide the launcher from the individual’s view until it is needed. Otherwise, realizing what may happen next, the subject could force the issue before less lethal can be deployed.

Clearly by that choice, officers are selecting a use of force method that may create pain to get some kind of resolution. There’s a mandatory expectation: A proper evaluation of the subject should be taking place. A big one is whether or not the circumstances warrant the use of the munitions. Next, what is the subject’s physical type? An assessment is necessary here as well. Drawing from Hollywood, I often use characters from the Austin Powers movies to dramatize this. Clearly, if we were to use impact munitions against them, a physical difference (and potentially different outcome) exists between the characters of Dr. Evil, Mini-Me and Fat Bastard. The point is that this factor should be part of an officer’s less lethal training and actual deployments. In one case, a very pregnant woman was shot with 12ga bean bags in the abdomen. The default question then becomes, “Just how much assessment of the woman took place before the less lethal rounds were fired?”

Cover Me
The core element of less lethal team tactics is the above officer working in partnership with a cover officer. Preferably the latter should be close by so that they can evaluate, communicate and decide as a team. There are a variety of reasons for someone to take on the cover officer duties, but it can all be distilled down to the fact that less lethal may not be effective or even the best choice. This is true not only with bean bags and sponge rounds but also with other tools such as Tasers and pepper spray. Some people just have the bad manners to not respond the way we want them to. Making other personnel aware of who has assumed the cover officer responsibilities is a good risk management step as well. In essence this person functions as the “designated shooter.” It is intended to reduce the possibility of multiple officers firing a multitude of lethal rounds.

Let’s Talk
While the cover officer’s job includes the lethal force option, at the other end of the less lethal team spectrum is a negotiator. Some circumstances just won’t blend well with this approach but it is a role that should always be part of the tentative game plan. Deescalating an event should be a constantly considered contingency. It bears repeating that if we can talk them into jail rather than fighting (or using other force options) them into jail, then that’s a good thing. So the role of negotiator has a place in overall patrol tactics. If the circumstances are serious enough, then trained negotiators should be requested. But in the interim or as an alternative, a police officer should be able to fill this role. My opinion: Good street cops have a solid grasp of how to resolve confrontations through their words and not just their tactics.

Cuff ’Em
Normally, the event is going to end with handcuffs on the subject. It is recommended that when possible, this task should not be carried out by the lethal and less lethal officers. Instead, if there are enough troops on scene, other officers handle taking the subject into custody. Typically, it is tactically sound to first make sure that the individual is indeed complying before moving up on him. Sometimes it may be appropriate to close quickly on the subject but it may also be a good idea to do a fast assessment while getting a game plan together before approaching. An additional concern for officers is to avoid tunnel vision on the subject. There may be fellow crooks, family members or friends nearby who could try to interfere to one degree or another as someone is taken into custody. You will often see smart street cops putting their backs to the arrest action to protect their partners.

The Cop in Charge
Another important role for this police response is for someone to take charge of the overall incident. While a field supervisor may be preferable, a seasoned street cop in possession of tactical common sense is just fine with me. Whomever it is, this officer should be looking around to coordinate all the moving parts. This might include delegating and improving the team assignments to make sure there is no confusion. Another task would be to broadcast that impact munitions are about to be deployed toward a subject. While it normally falls on the less lethal officer to make a verbal announcement, repeating the advisement over the radio so everyone hears it is a smart move to prevent “contagious fire.” Not only is it tactically beneficial but these words are also being recorded at the station for future reference. Making sure that paramedics have been requested would be another item on the supervisor’s check list as officers deal with the subject. Add to this, monitoring the actions and the attitudes of the cops on scene could be proactive in preventing events outside the scope of the reasonableness standard. Whoever is in charge, recognizing when the “use of force express” is headed down the track way too fast is important. Slowing down or diverting that cop inertia before it becomes a train wreck makes sense.

Street work is all about options. If, for example, a number of less lethal rounds don’t get compliance, then forward thinking cops should be preparing to go to other options rather than just continuing to hammer away with impact munitions. Bad for us is the fact that this awareness doesn’t always take place. In one case, a subject was hit 63 times with impact munitions within 30 minutes. Such a statistic challenges us to get the evaluation process rolling early in the confrontation rather than repeat such a high impact munition round count.

Take the time to assess your department’s less lethal program and make it better at whatever level appropriate. It is my opinion that these efforts will pay off for the department and your officers. Train safe. God bless America.


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