Any officer assigned less lethal tools needs to be trained in the proper application of those options, the use of force policy for their agency, and the appropriate legal decisions that guide non-deadly and deadly force.
For the purpose of this article I will focus on the use of less lethal bean bag projectiles (SIMs) that are predominately deployed from shotguns.
The use of less lethal devices has been around since mankind started associating with each other in a community. If someone got out of line, someone else would likely hit them with something to get them to stop. In modern society, that responsibility, for the most part, falls to the professional law enforcement agencies.
The use of SIMs, however, is a fairly new concept, and has only really begun to be practiced in the middle of the 20th Century. Perhaps one of the first uses of SIMs was when the British used wooden bullets to quell an uprising on the island of Crete. Developed as a training round during WWII, the wooden bullets were still lethal, especially at close ranges.
With the contentious nature of the 1960’s many police agencies sought ways for officers to take people into custody without killing them or having prolonged uses of strikes against them.
The Rodney King incident in Los Angeles during the early 1990‘s was probably the biggest stimulus for the creation of other intermediary weapons and options. This resulted in the establishment of SIMs as we know them – most particularly, the bean bag round.
Less Lethal Philosophy
The basic philosophy for the use of less lethal devices or munitions is this: It is a force option that provides officers a means to resolve incidents involving aggressive or violent suspects/subjects with a significantly reduced risk of serious injury or death. In a nutshell, less lethal force and tools are used for the expressed purpose of reducing serious injury or death during police encounters.
In the case of the Taser and SIMs, many agencies recognize this level of force at or near the same level as the use of a baton (impact weapons), and just below the use of deadly force. Some may place the Taser at a level below impact weapons, but above soft empty-handed techniques. The use of a Taser or SIMs should be reserved for those suspects who are actively resisting police, and not merely passively resisting. Another way to look at SIMs or the Taser, is a long range baton.
Less Lethal vs. Less Than Lethal
There seems to be confusion in law enforcement concerning the terms “less lethal” and “less than lethal”. To be sure, the two terms are NOT interchangeable! “Less lethal” means that the force is much less likely to produce a lethal result, but that the potential for lethality still exists. This is the case for almost all modern SIMs, because if the SIM strikes a subject in the head, torso, or spine, there is a significant chance that death or serious physical injury will result. Therefore SIMs are “less lethal” munitions, and NOT “less than lethal”.
“Less than lethal” implies that the end result will not involve death. Using this term and concept is extremely dangerous in the litigious nature of police work. Just about anything can result in lethality, even if it is a side effect of the original use. If you still decide to use “less than lethal”, it should probably be reserved for soft empty-hand techniques. My recommendation is to simply use the philosophy of “less lethal” in applications of force that were intended to take a suspect into custody without death.
The Priority of Life
The IACP, NTOA, and most police agencies have a priority of life scale that directs officers how to view different people effected by an incident. The priority of life scale recognizes the following hierarchy of persons:
- Innocent By-standers,
- Police and First Responders, and
It is critical in the use of less lethal options to understand this scale and not violate it, otherwise there is a significantly greater chance of failure in the goal to save lives. There is also a much greater risk that officers will be seriously hurt or killed if we do not follow the Priority of Life scale. In my Tactical Patrol series, here on Bluesheepdog.com, I’ve covered the merits of the Priority of Life scale in greater detail so I won’t repeat those ideas now.
Less Lethal Deployment
Whenever the situation dictates, and officers choose to deploy less lethal devices or munitions, officer safety must be paramount, unless the need to rescue hostages, victims, or innocent by-standers requires immediate action. In those situations it is possible that officers will place themselves in harm’s way for the duty to protect. In all other situations there is a systematic approach to ensure that officers involved in the deployment are kept as reasonably safe as possible.
First, officers must ensure that the SIMs launcher is properly maintained, functioning, and loaded correctly. This is particularly necessary for SIMs, as they are most frequently being fired from a shotgun capable of lethal rounds. My Department issues a 5-round box of bean bag shotgun rounds to each less lethal trained officer. It is that officer’s responsibility to maintain his/her rounds, and to ensure that they are the rounds loaded when preparing the less lethal shotgun for shift. Other Departments may require officers to check out ammunition from an armory or supervisor before each shift. Whatever the case, it is the less lethal officer’s responsibility to ensure that they are loading less lethal rounds into their less lethal shotgun.
My Department uses he ALS 1212 Pen Prevent shotgun bean bag round. The ALS less lethal shotgun rounds have a clear/opaque casing that clearly marks them as something other than a lethal round. I’ve seen Def-Tec and CTS rounds with the same or a white casing for the same reason. This is a safety feature that should be mandatory in selecting any less lethal SIM.
In addition, the ends of the less lethal rounds have a flat blocker (paper or wax) instead of the folded over casing like traditional shotgun rounds. This provides another means for officers to quickly identify less lethal rounds over lethal rounds.
Finally, the bean bag rounds are considerably less weight than either a slug or 00 Buck round, and the Less Lethal Officer should be able to tell the difference. Some bird shot rounds, however, may be close in weight, so the Less Lethal Officer should use all of the built in safety indicators to verify the less lethal round is being used. These features provide a visual and tactile way of distinguishing less lethal rounds.
Dedicated SIM Launcher
The best policy is to have a dedicated SIM launching system. For patrol, that means a shotgun, with orange (or other color) butt stock and fore grip, that is clearly marked for less lethal munition use. Anyone trained in the use of SIMs will only be authorized to use the SIM from that launcher. This should alleviate the potential of an officer, in the heat of a call, failing to properly clear the lethal shotgun of lethal rounds, and then engaging a suspect with lethal force when less lethal force was intended.
For those officers who work for departments that don’t have dedicated less lethal shotguns, extreme caution must be exercised when deploying less lethal rounds. In that situation the best practice is for the Less Lethal Officer to arrive on scene, and check in with another officer. The two officers will observe the Less Lethal Officer download the lethal shotgun, ensuring the chamber and magazine are physically and visually inspected to make sure there are no lethal rounds left inside. Then both officers will observe the Less Lethal Officer load less lethal rounds into the shotgun. Only when both officers agree that the shotgun is ready for less lethal deployment, will the Less Lethal Officer and Lethal Cover Officer deploy.
CAUTION – If your department uses a Benelli semi-auto shotgun (and possibly any semi-auto shotgun) the shotgun will not cycle after firing a less lethal round. The Less Lethal Officer must manually cycle the shotgun after each shot.
Announcement of Less Lethal
Upon arrival of the Less Lethal Officer, a radio announcement should be made to make all officers, and supervisors on scene aware that less lethal munitions are available for deployment. The most common means to to this is, “Less Lethal on scene”. This is to warn that a SIM may be deployed, so officers should attempt to stay clear of the suspect. This announcement is also meant to avoid any contagion fire from officers who hear a discharge and mistakingly assume the situation has risen to the level of deadly force.
The Less Lethal Team
As soon as practical the Less Lethal officer needs to identify who will be his/her Lethal Cover Officer. Only in the most extreme of circumstances should a Less Lethal officer deploy without lethal cover. If a solo officer deploys and the situation suddenly turns to lethal force, it will place that officer at great a risk to try to transition to a lethal force means. This Less Lethal Team (Less Lethal Officer and Lethal Cover Officer) need to remain in very close proximity to each other at all times so each has the same perspective of events, and the Lethal Cover officer can immediately deploy lethal force should the need arise.
The Less Lethal Team then needs to analyze the situation and ensure that less lethal options are still valid. If they are, then the Team needs to ensure that they have the most appropriate SIM for the situation at hand, and are within the recommended deployment distances for the option they are choosing. For clarity, my Department only authorizes one type of SIM for Patrol. The SWAT Team has a variety of munitions to choose from, but also go through a greater amount of training on those munitions.
Less Lethal Engagement
The Less Lethal Officer is in charge of the less lethal deployment, unless a supervisor overrides or directs action. The best scenario is for the Less Lethal Officer to be the ONLY officer giving the suspect/subject verbal directions. The verbal commands should also provide warning to the suspect/subject of the pending deployment of a SIM. If the suspect/subject complies – great. If they do not then the Less Lethal Officer should engage them with the goal to incapacitate or gain compliance.
If the Less Lethal Officer is going to engage the suspect, a loud verbal warning should be given. This warning is for officers (not the suspect), and is meant to avoid contagion fire. The warning should be short and simple. Many SIMs instructors teach to use “Impact” as the warning for SIMs deployment, and Taser recommends “Clear” for its deployment.
Assessment and Redeployment
Once the less lethal option is deployed the Less Lethal Officer should assess it’s effectiveness and if needed fire additional SIMs to accomplish the goal of incapacitation or compliance. It is imperative that the Less Lethal Team have a plan of action should the less lethal option not work! At any time, if the threat changes to a lethal threat, the Lethal Cover Officer should engage the suspect with lethal force as the law and Department policy authorize.
When the desired outcome is achieved the Less Lethal Officer should direct Arrest Officers to move in and secure the suspect/subject. Only after the suspect is secured should the Less Lethal Team come off line and secure their weapons.
Obviously at the end of an event like this there will be paperwork to complete. Enjoy! This part of the call is almost as important as the actual deployment of the less lethal rounds. The old saying applies – “if it isn’t in the report it didn’t happen”. One of the most important concepts an officer needs to realize in any use of force is the manner in which that force, and it’s justification, is described.
We should expand the facts of the force application to include our thought processes in using force. When the guy tries to hit us don’t simply report that we struck him with the baton, but add the reasoning behind it. For example, “my hope was that the display of the baton would cause the suspect to comply with orders. Instead, the suspect charged me, and swung his fists at my head, which required me to strike him on the common peroneal.” The added reasoning hits the major point in the use of force – “IT WAS THE SUSPECT’S ACTIONS THAT REQUIRED THE FORCE TO BE USED.”
Writing our use of force this way completely places the responsibility for the force on the suspect – not the officer, who some in society view as over-eager to use force. You may even want to add the capitalized sentence in your report to remove all doubt about why the force was used.
Most agencies require officers to make a separate reporting of the use of force, in addition to the incident report surrounding the original call. Some officers try to avoid much mention of force in their reports for fear of discipline or prosecution. You are only hurting yourself if you choose that course of action. If your actions are legal, ethical, and within policy, you should want them and your reasoning to stand out loud and clear.
Modern day less lethal force options are a crucial component to any professional law enforcement agency. To properly deploy these options careful considerations must be made to ensure the right equipment is obtained, the officers are properly trained, and necessary safety protocols are followed.
Following these steps will provide officers with the best opportunity to successfully resolve violent situations without an unacceptable amount of injury to suspects or officers. When used properly, less lethal force options are a win-win solution.
For background purposes, I am currently certified as a less lethal munitions instructor from ALS Technologies (now AMTEC Less Lethal Systems). ALS is one of the few companies that produce less lethal munitions and instruction. My certification covers SIMs (Specialty Impact Munitions), O.C. spray, CS and OC gas projectiles, Sound-Flash-Diversionary-Devices (SFDD), and burning smoke munitions.
However, in the past I have received instruction from certified Def-Tec (Defense Technology), and CTS (Combined Tactical Solutions a.k.a. Combined Systems, Inc.) instructors. These companies are the most recognized less lethal munition manufacturers.
I have also had instruction from retired Major Steve Ijames, who is nationally known for his tactical and less lethal instruction. Major Ijames was an original member of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) board of directors, and the course developer/lead instructor for the NTOA and IACP less lethal “train the trainer” programs addressing impact projectiles, chemical agents, and sound flash diversionary devices.
Having a fairly broad background I can say that the majority of instruction between providers is very similar in its content. Differences are usually only in particular manufacturer munition offerings, and the emphasis on particular categories of instruction.
Aaron is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.
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