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Saving lives and regaining public trust by employing nonlethal PepperBall

By using PepperBall for a range of patrol operations, the Phoenix Police Department is increasing officer safety and morale, improving community relations and resolving more incidents without deadly force

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Each time Phoenix PD deploys PepperBall is an opportunity to avoid a potentially lethal incident.

Phoenix PD

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By Laura Neitzel, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

PepperBall is not new – in fact, it has been used by thousands of law enforcement agencies across the globe for over the last 20 years – but this nonlethal technology is having an “it” moment as large police agencies like the Phoenix Police Department are deploying it to help solve many of the public safety challenges of today.

Police are under increased scrutiny when using force. Community groups, advocates and other local, state and federal agencies are demanding that police resolve potentially violent encounters while minimizing the use of force and significantly reducing the use of deadly force. This is especially true in encounters with people experiencing a mental crisis, homelessness or drug addiction. As such, police agencies are looking for more effective means of enacting compliance or behavior change without seriously injuring the subject.

For Phoenix PD, the need to find more effective alternatives to potentially deadly force came to a head in the wave of civil unrest that gripped the nation in the summer of 2020. Like many agencies, Phoenix PD struggled to balance the rights of protestors against the need to keep the public and property safe. While every department affected struggled with the unrest, Phoenix also had the highest number of officer-involved shootings on a per-capita basis, bringing attention from the U.S. Department of Justice, which launched an investigation in August 2021.

In response to the DOJ investigation and to improve policing in the city, one of the first measures Phoenix PD undertook under interim Chief Michael Sullivan was to revamp their use of force policy. The new policy included an expanded use of PepperBall by well-trained daily patrol officers.

Why Phoenix PD selected PepperBall for agencywide deployment: adaptability and versatility

The Phoenix leadership team needed a solution that was nonlethal so they could deploy it as needed in the community while minimizing the risk of serious injury or death. Additionally, the Phoenix PD needed something versatile, addressing the many situations their officers faced daily in the field. PepperBall proved to be a reliable companion in routine patrols, traffic stops and high-risk interventions. It empowered their patrol officers to respond proactively, effectively and responsibly, highlighting their commitment to the safe conduct of their teams and protection of their communities.

“I’ve never seen PepperBall cause serious harm. It has a short (e.g., 5 minutes) duration of effect, and it’s very useful in getting people to stop doing what they are doing and listen to the officer,” said Colonel (ret.) Frank Milstead, who most recently ran the Arizona Department of Public Safety and before that was the chief of police in Mesa and Phoenix.

Stopping a threat from a distance

The leadership team at Phoenix PD understood that officers should not be forced to give up distance and cover to obtain compliance. The PepperBall system allows officers to engage a subject from a safe distance with a reasonable nonlethal level of force.

The PepperBall system also does not require line of sight to be effective – officers don’t actually need to be able to see the subject. This makes PepperBall a valuable tool in situations where an individual is hiding or taking cover in a room, garage or other shelter. Instead of calling in support for a long, protracted engagement requiring multiple support personnel, an officer can deploy PepperBall projectiles into an area to induce the individual to come out willingly.

“Officers can deploy PepperBall into a residence or vehicle and avoid the need to go in someplace where the suspect may be armed and be more dangerous,” said Milstead. “We don’t have to put officers’ lives at risk, and, by maintaining distance and avoiding unwelcome surprises at close proximity, we don’t put the suspect at risk.”

Phoenix PD has also found success utilizing PepperBall as a method to control individuals quickly and effectively in public areas. Because PepperBall launchers can effectively deploy projectiles up to 150 feet, it is a very accurate option for controlling a suspect wielding a knife across a parking lot or denying a suspect access to an area like a park or retail location.

PepperBall is a truly nonlethal option

The reality is that police are often called upon to defuse situations involving people who are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed or under the influence – situations where the person’s behavior needs to be brought under control but choices about the use of force are especially challenging. No officer wants to injure a mentally disturbed individual, but when their actions threaten others, there is often no choice other than applying force. PepperBall reduces the risk of lethal force and can bring such encounters to a quick and safe ending.

The PepperBall system consists of compressed air-powered launchers and proprietary projectiles. PepperBall launchers operate similar to paintball launchers and deploy projectiles that release an approximately 12-foot cloud of 2%–5% PAVA powder – a powerful organic irritant – on impact. In most individuals, this irritant produces an immediate and debilitating reaction in the mucus membranes that encourages subjects to change their behavior and comply with an officer’s instructions without causing permanent injury. This experience dissipates in roughly five minutes so that the subject is back to normal without inducing any harmful side effects.

PepperBall systems have been deployed and continuously refined over 20 years across thousands of agencies. The PepperBall system has not been directly connected to any deaths, serious injuries or officer indictments for excessive force. This contrasts to less-lethal tools such as rubber bullets, bean bags and even foam projectiles, which have been known to cause serious injury when not used correctly. Multiple officers are under indictment currently for misuse of these less-lethal alternatives. Conversely, PepperBall is designated as nonlethal. It simply does not generate enough force to be fatal. It is also one of the few devices that does not have to impact a subject to be effective.

In addition to projectiles filled with organic irritant, PepperBall projectiles are also available filled with an inert substance similar to talc. Although the inert contents do not have the debilitating effect of PAVA, the “shock and awe” factor of having a projectile burst at ground level or being impacted with the projectile can be enough to deter a disorderly or mentally incapacitated individual in a school, church or other location where deploying PAVA would be problematic. PepperBall can be used to deter aggressive animals, enabling officers to defend themselves while avoiding the need to use a firearm against a protective family pet.

Phoenix PD has seen improved officer morale while saving valuable officer time

Since implementing PepperBall as its primary nonlethal option for day-to-day patrol, Phoenix PD has significantly reduced use-of-force encounters, saving lives, money and resources. Over 4,418 deployments (instances of PepperBall being taken out of a vehicle) and 480 discharges (instances of PepperBall projectiles being used) have been recorded. Of those uses, 27% involved a suspect or person of interest, 12% involved a vehicle, 42% involved an interaction with a building or structure, and 2% an animal encounter. Each use of PepperBall was an opportunity to avoid a potentially lethal incident.

In addition, allowing day-to-day patrol officers to manage challenging situations without having to call in extensive backup or a SWAT team creates job satisfaction. “Officers want to be able to keep the public safe in a way that is safe for them and the individuals they encounter,” Milstead commented. “Being able to quickly and safely handle a situation improves officer morale, a sometimes-overlooked imperative for police agencies.”

By enabling officers to handle the situation themselves, already-stretched resources can be used much more effectively to protect the larger public, and there is less overtime involved. While it’s difficult to estimate, Milstead believes there are significant savings in overtime and legal costs for agencies that utilize the PepperBall system. For example, each time an officer is pushed to use lethal force, an agency could spend between $500,000 and $1 million to investigate the incident and deal with the unfortunate aftermath (e.g., litigation, officer administrative leave time), not including downstream costs of wrongful-death suits.

Finally, and perhaps most important, while not every incident can be resolved peacefully, Milstead estimates that, over its first year of PepperBall implementation, the Phoenix Police Department successfully avoided over a dozen officer-involved shootings by using PepperBall to safely resolve the incidents. This represents an avoidance of serious injury and loss of life and is perhaps the best measure of the positive impact of the system. As communities and police know all too well, it is hard to overstate the positive impact of reducing officer-involved shootings, which are tragic, traumatic and costly, permanently impacting the lives of all involved.

By the end of 2023, over 200 Phoenix PD patrol officers will have been trained and equipped with PepperBall for day-to-day patrol usage. More important, the department’s use of PepperBall to de-escalate incidents without the need for deadly force shows their commitment to preserving life and reducing harm.

Through transparently posting videos of incidents that were safely resolved with the use of PepperBall, Phoenix PD has earned the praise of many residents, who have expressed an appreciation of the nonlethal option and the efforts of the department. Importantly, the visible efforts of Phoenix PD to take the concerns of their residents seriously and equip officers with nonlethal options is helping to rebuild trust between the department and residents, helping turn some former critics into collaborators for a better-equipped force and a safer Phoenix.

For more information on PepperBall, visit

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Laura Neitzel is Director of Branded Content for Lexipol, where she produces written and multimedia branded content of relevance to a public safety audience, including law enforcement, fire, EMS and corrections. She holds degrees in English from the University of Texas and the University of North Texas, and has over 20 years’ experience writing and producing branded and educational content for nationally-recognized companies, government agencies, non-profits and advocacy organizations.

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