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Less lethal weapons still pack a big punch; But require lots of extra training

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

They are neon orange, shoot beanbags and look like toys, but the newest Remington shotguns some Seattle cops now wield are the latest tools in the city’'s arsenal of less lethal weapons.

As of last week, 16 patrol officers began carrying the new weapons, the final stage of a plan to give police options besides deadly force when dealing with mentally ill, drugged or just plain violent people.

“The whole less-lethal program has been phenomenal for us,” police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said, noting that there were no fatal shootings involving police officers in Seattle last year.

“That’'s the first time in 15 years,” he said.

But Kerlikowske, other law enforcement officers and even some in the community who have wanted less lethal weapons caution that just because the weapons are not designed to kill, it doesn’'t mean they won’'t.

And it doesn’'t mean a police officer won’'t ever have to use deadly force.

“It’'s certainly not a panacea,” firearms instructor Sgt. Pete Verhaar said of the beanbag shotguns. “It certainly has its limitations.”

For years, the tools the average patrol officer had at his or her disposal remained unchanged, Kerlikowske said.

“We were still using the same things - sticks and guns,” he said, referring to the side arms and batons that officers traditionally carry.

But in the 1990s, Seattle police officers were involved in some high-profile shootings. One was the 1999 shooting death of David Walker, a mentally ill man armed with a knife.

He had earlier robbed juice from a nearby store and fired two errant shots from a handgun.

Many in the community felt police were too quick to shoot Walker, and pressure mounted to find less lethal ways for dealing with dangerous people, particularly the mentally ill.

In October 2000, city officials approved spending $350,000 to buy Tasers and beanbag shotguns and to begin a program to give officers a better way of dealing with people going through a mental health crisis.

Crisis intervention training was already under way at the time, teaching officers enhanced verbal skills to deal with mentally disturbed people. At the time Walker died, about 120 officers had received the training.

After the shooting, there was a renewed commitment to expand the program to 200 patrol officers trained in the 40-hour course.

The department exceeded that goal. By the end of the first year, 214 officers were trained and there was a waiting list of more officers who wanted to learn the crisis intervention methods.

Kerlikowske said he recently watched a trained officer handle a disturbed man by literally talking him into an ambulance.

“It was so impressive to see that level of skill,” he said.

The Tasers that some patrol officers carry were bought in late 2000, but the city’'s SWAT officers had Tasers available years earlier.

Shaped like boxy flashlights, they were rarely used, said Officer Chris Myers, who trains other officers in the use of the Tasers.

“They sat on the shelf forever,” Myers said.

The newer ones were M26 Tasers, shaped like handguns so officers had a ready feel for them. They fired two probes up to 21 feet, were carried in an extra holster officers wore on their thigh, and ran on 8 AA batteries available just about anywhere.

Still, officers were initially reluctant to use them.

“It started off pretty slow,” Myers said.

By the end of the first year, 158 officers carried the M26 Tasers, but some left them in the holster. Taser incidents in 2001 totaled just 103.

Ken Saucier, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, said officers are often reluctant to use new equipment, especially in volatile situations.

“If we make a mistake, we’'re dead,” he said. “For us, it’'s not a game. It’'s not an experiment.”

Even tools now standard for officers became widely used only gradually, Saucier said.

“I remember when we first got pepper spray. We’'d get into knockdown, drag-out fights, forgetting we had it on our belt,” he said. “It was so new, you just kept forgetting you had it.”

With Tasers, their use grew as word spread among the rank and file that the device frequently did what it promised: stopped people in their tracks.

Last year, 220 officers carried Tasers and used them 428 times.

The department soon plans to turn in its M26 Tasers for a new model, the X26 Taser, smaller, lighter and more effective. They’'re so small, Myers said, a plain-clothes detective could easily carry one.

And now there are the beanbag shotguns.

The department bought 130 of the Remington shotguns in 2000, but had trouble finding ammunition they felt gave the best chance for a non-lethal use.

The department uses a yellow Kevlar sack resembling a sock. It’'s rounded, unlike other types that have flat edges and can penetrate a person. Those have been known to be fatal.

The bags are fired at 280 feet per second, packing a punch comparable to being hit by a major league pitcher’'s fastball, Myers said.

He demonstrated the power of the bag on the cinderblock wall of the department firing range office.

From five yards away, closer than the gun would be used in an actual situation, Myers hit the same spot on the wall three times. The third shot punched a hole the size of a half-dollar through the cinderblock.

“Now you know why it’'s called ''less lethal’’ and not ''non-lethal,’'" Verhaar said.

The officers who carry the less lethal shotguns - all volunteers - had to learn to judge distances. Officers must be between 21 and 45 feet away from the subject when firing a beanbag.

And instead of aiming for the center mass of the body, beanbag shotguns are aimed at the abdomen, thighs or forearms - marked green on the training targets.

“The red areas are lethal targets,” Verhaar said, pointing to the head and chest.

Officers with beanbag shotguns don’'t carry patrol shotguns. The department doesn’'t want officers confusing their training and inadvertently aiming a beanbag at a lethal spot.

The rules for using the beanbag shotgun in the field are strict: There must be a sergeant present, armed officers to provide cover, and other officers prepared to make the arrest.

The officer firing the beanbag must announce that he is going to shoot.

The shotguns are expected to be used in situations similar to those handled with Tasers - violent crimes, drug- and alcohol-related incidents, fights, and calls involving mentally disturbed people.

“They’'re the ones we don’'t want to get close enough to, to use the Taser,” Myers said.

Verhaar said the best news for the less lethal program will be the improved training.

Despite what police see as the success of the less lethal program, issues remain about the use of the equipment.

For example, last year, 45 percent of the people struck with Tasers were black, while 42 percent were white. That approximate ratio has been true since the Tasers first came into use among patrol officers.

Some call those statistics alarming, since the 2000 U.S. Census found that blacks make up 8 percent of the city’'s population while whites make up 68 percent.

“That’'s way out of line,” said Dustin Washington with the People’'s Coalition for Justice. “Less lethal weapons are a step in the right direction. But they’'re not the ultimate victory.”

Harriet Walden with Mothers for Police Accountability is disturbed by another statistic: Of the people struck with the Tasers last year, just 14 percent were mentally disturbed.

That percentage seems low to Walden, who said she believed Tasers would be used predominantly on people in a mental-health crisis, not just to make troublesome people comply with officers’’ orders.

Sometimes, the devices simply don’'t work. Seattle police have shot and killed at least one man, Shawn Maxwell, after Taser strikes proved ineffective on him, possibly because of the heavy clothing he wore.