Ind. police get pepperball guns; Offers less-lethal alternative in the field

By Barry William Walsh
Marion Chronicle Tribune (Indiana)

Housed in the firing range at the Marion Police Department is a weapon that at first glance appears to be nothing more than a high-end paintball gun.

The weapon has a tumbler to hold the rounds, an air compressor to propel the rounds, and the rounds are even brightly colored.

It is only after intense inspection that it becomes apparent this weapon is so much more than a paintball gun.

It is distinguished by the intense odor that emits from the rounds and from the tumbler when it is opened. It is a pepperball gun, an alternative weapon local law enforcement agencies use to fight crime.

"The pepperball gun is very similar to a paintball gun that is sold to the general public," Deputy Police Chief David Day said. "The only difference is the rounds come out much faster, and what''s contained in the balls is not paint. It essentially is the same thing as pepper spray, but more concentrated."

Day said the pepperball guns were first purchased by the police department after an incident in which a man on his porch rooftop held a knife to his throat. Day said officers were not able to talk him down. Worried about his safety, they called for the Grant County Sheriff''s Department''s pepperball gun.

"One of the sheriff''s deputies fired a few rounds at him, and on impact, he dropped the knife and shouted, ''Take me to the hospital, you shot me!''"

Soon after, the city police department bought two pepperball guns.

Day said officers who use the pepperball guns have received training detailing how to deploy the weapon properly.

"We''ve used the weapon on several occasions with good success," he said, "and, we are able to avoid injury to ourselves and the victims."

The pepperball guns are one of three types of less-than-lethal weapons the police department uses. The one that gets a lot of use is pepper spray.

"We''ve had pepper spray as long as I''ve been on the department," Day said. "It is similar to what is marketed to the general public en masse, but it is stronger."

Sometimes they work better than other times.

"The spray affects everyone to varying degrees, but everyone is more or less susceptible to them," Day said.

The third alternative weapon is called a beanbag gun, and Day said it has yet to be deployed.

The sheriff''s department was the first agency in Grant County to buy pepperball guns.

"We purchased the pepperball guns in 1999 when Sheriff (Oatess) Archey first came into office," Capt. Mike Ross said.

The department was looking for a weapon that was less lethal than firearms, Ross said.

"We were looking for a weapon that was ... a less-lethal option for our officers, that would allow for a little bit more range in a standoff between the officer and suspect," he said.

The sheriff''s department has utilized the pepperball guns in the field and in the county jail in certain situations.

Ross said one of the most memorable times was during an Oct. 15, 2000, standoff in Swayzee with resident Matt Noteboom.

"We used a combination of flash bangs and a pepperball gun to diffuse that situation," Ross said. "There were no injuries to our officers or the suspects."

According to Ross, if not for the pepperball gun, the situation could have been much worse.

"It could have ended with a fatality for the suspect since he was armed with a rifle and a handgun."

While some smaller police departments have purchased alternative weapons, the opportunities for use are fewer.

"Fortunately, we''ve never had to implement them. They are just a tool that, if the situation arose, we needed to use them to subdue someone, we could do so without having to use lethal force," Gas City Police Chief Kirk McCollum said.

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