Why the less-lethal 'Alternative' is bad idea

The Alternative less lethal device seems likely to do no good and might do considerable harm


A recent news article covered by the Washington Post, AP, and the like, indicates that the chief of the Ferguson Police Department is giving his officers a ping-pong ball to mount on the barrels of their sidearms. 

Okay, that’s not quite true. The device, called “The Alternative,” attaches to the muzzle of a 9mm pistol, such as a Glock or Sig Sauer. When a round is fired from the gun with the gadget in place, the bullet embeds in a “metal-alloy bullet capture device” about the size of a ping-pong ball, and leaves the gun at about 250 feet per second. When it gets to where it’s going, it becomes an impact weapon powerful enough to disable an adversary without killing them. It’s said to be effective out to about 30 feet.

This is a one-use item. If the officer fires a second (or third, or fourth) shot, a bullet is fired from the weapon as usual. 

No Place on a Pistol
The Alternative doesn’t normally reside on the pistol. When an officer anticipates the need for The Alternative, he removes it from a carrier on his duty belt and attaches it to the muzzle of his gun. I don’t know how long it takes to do this, but I assume the time is measured in seconds, not minutes. 

There is a place for less-lethal weaponry in law enforcement. TASERs have proven their worth thousands of times by temporarily disabling bad guys long enough to get them into cuffs, with no lasting injury. There have been some fatalities associated with TASER deployments, but TASER has generally been successful in defending itself from civil lawsuits in court. 

Most deaths have a more proximate cause involving a preexisting medical condition, illicit drug abuse, or some combination of the two. 

That place for less-lethal measures is not as an attachment to the officer’s primary weapon. Cops appreciate how important that gun is, keeping them alive and uninjured. They care for their guns meticulously. They demonstrate proficiency with them regularly. They are wary of anyone or anything that modifies their sidearm. That sort of thing is left to people and gear the cop trusts completely. 

Real Life, Not the Movies
Another consideration is the dynamics of a deadly force situation. TV and movie gunfights are preceded by a suspenseful buildup to the moment of truth, often punctuated with some gritty dialogue between cop and bad guy on the futility of life, morality, and a gluten-free diet. In real life, they are more likely to begin with something like, “Good evening, sir. May I see your driv—GUN! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!”

There is no time to do much more than draw the gun from its holster. Most cops don’t even have time to get a good sight picture. There certainly isn’t time to remove another gadget from the belt, screw, snap, or jam it onto the gun barrel, and then hope your adversary is not yet too close to overcome or disarm you, and not too far away for the ping-pong ball to be ineffective.

There is also long-established training doctrine to consider. Every tactical firearms course I‘ve ever taken advocated firing at least two shots (sometimes three) before assessing effectiveness and deciding your next move. The second shot with an Alternative-equipped gun is going to be an unadorned bullet. 

Given the particular agency where this deployment is proposed, let’s look back at their recent history of deadly force encounters. In the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown incident, Wilson was pushed back into his patrol car and was barely able to draw his sidearm before Brown tried to get control of it. Wilson’s first shot was at point-blank range, striking Brown in the hand. He might have been inside the range for The Alternative to be effective on Brown, but he certainly didn’t have time to fix another device onto his gun before firing. 

By the time Wilson fired his second and subsequent shots, Brown might have been too far away for The Alternative to affect Brown. If Brown was close enough for the less-lethal device to be effective, there’s no way of knowing just how effective it would have been on a 290-pound man.

Had The Alternative been available to Wilson, and if all the stars aligned to give him time to mount it before he fired his second volley of shots at Brown, it’s impossible to say if the less-lethal projectile would have stopped Brown. If a naked 9mm bullet didn’t stop Brown, it’s unlikely that a larger missile, powered by another 9mm round and moving at maybe ¼ the speed of a bullet, would have done any better. 

The end result is that if Darren Wilson would have had The Alternative available to him on the day he encountered Michael Brown, and he had time to deploy it, the outcome of that incident would arguably have been exactly the same.

The leaders of the Ferguson PD are in a very difficult position. No matter what they do, everyone is going to notice, and someone is going to find fault with it. The fact that the acquisition of a piece of new gear by a 55-officer department in Flyover America is being reported by a national newspaper is testament to this. Anywhere else, this would have gone unnoticed by any news outlet more than 20 miles away. 

I know nothing about the makers of The Alternative. The Alternative might have a functional role in the right situation, although I’m having difficulty imagining what that situation might be. I do know that this device — as it’s being envisioned to be deployed — is likely to do no good and might do considerable harm. 

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