Mitigating the danger of bean bags and other impact rounds
The answer is found not in the bean bag rounds themselves, but in the manner in which they are used
The First Book of Samuel documents the slaying of Goliath by the boy-shepherd David. The Philistine was armed with proximity weapons, including a bronze javelin, iron spear, and long-bladed sword. These were heavy weapons, and even a giant had to get close to use them. David was aware of this so he kept his distance, reached into his bag, and lifted out five smooth stones...
Delivering impact energy from afar is nothing new. From Biblical times to contemporary global policing, smart people have recognized that you increase safety by keeping your distance - especially when facing someone armed with an intimate contact weapon.
Extended range impact devices such as the bean bag shotgun are now generally embraced by contemporary police agencies, and more sign on every day. Policy makers and department heads attend conferences, read articles and speak with their peers concerning "what's hot and what's not."
DEATH AND INJURY FROM IMPACT ROUNDS
Within such forums they hear about impact round successes and the unique manner in which they have bridged the distance gap and directly contributed to positive operational outcomes. They likewise hear about the catastrophic failures.
One particularly tragic incident in 2004 caused a number of agencies to pull the involved system from the field. This situation contributed to the anguish felt by policy makers (and no small number of operators) as they struggle over when, where and how these devices should be used and the endgame as it relates to predicting and ultimately preventing deaths and serious injuries.
With that in mind, what is the likelihood that deploying less lethal with the best of intentions will actually cause the death of those we are trying so hard to protect…often from themselves?
THE IMPACT ROUND DILEMMA
Consider the armed, yet non-assaultive, suicidal subject and the challenges created for the responding officers. A direct external threat isn't present, yet failing to intervene as he cuts his wrist arguably defies logic. "Everyone" knows that the officers should do something to help. Unfortunately, should the officer's "help" involve an impact round that causes death or serious injury, the court of public opinion will likely decide that the cure was worse than the disease. Here in lies the dilemma.
The operational need for impact projectiles is beyond dispute. There simply isn't anything else that can bridge the reactionary gap as cost effectively, spontaneously and with the same degree of potential effectiveness. The larger question is then: Can the rounds be used with confidence, or should they only be deployed with the understanding that every shot carries significant risk of death or serious physical injury?
MITIGATING THE DANGER OF BEAN BAGS AND OTHER IMPACT ROUNDS
The answer is found not in the "rounds" themselves, but in the manner in which they are used. Statistically, impact projectiles have been proven safe and effective when properly used by trained personnel. Likewise, the potential for a death or serious injury outcome is clearly a reality. At last count, an impact projectile had played a role in at least 14 deaths and numerous serious injuries in the United States and Canada since 1971. Many offer suggestions and explanations of how such things occur, but upon critical independent examination the primary causative factor is always shot placement.
Overly simplistic perhaps, but it is the crux of the "impact" problem. Not the round or delivery system, the distance fired, or the size, shape, age, medical condition or clothing worn by the victim. All of these things play a part, but they aren't the deciding factor. This is not some revolutionary way of thinking. It is the same mindset that has been followed with conventional "impact instruments" (the police baton) for many years. Law enforcement learned through long experience that deaths and critical injuries occur with the police baton. We didn't address this concern by blaming the victim's physical makeup or seeking out softer or "better" batons. We addressed it by focusing on the literal cause of the problem and directing officers to avoid hitting those areas likely to yield negative results - such as the head.
It is important to note that this direction was not preceded with argument and debate concerning:
- The frequency in which head impacts had not resulted in fatalities.
- The fact that officers had been hitting the head for so long that in their moment of stress they'll swing at the head regardless of what is taught.
- The fact that the negative outcomes were occurring was sufficient incentive to direct change.
A similar comparison can be made to the impact projectile deaths and serious injuries that have been reported in the past, continue to be reported today and, in the absence of proper training and oversight, will continue to occur in the future. We are striking areas of the body that are vulnerable to impact energy and the severity of the injury follows.
Contemporary policy makers and their trainers have digested the above and appropriately direct/instruct their officers to avoid those parts of the body most likely to result in a death or serious injury, absent a compelling and justified reason to do otherwise. This is THE critical first step towards a safe and effective impact projectile program, and one that continues to be ignored by a surprising number of police agencies today.
This article, originally published 6/1/2005, has been updated.
- Less Lethal