PepperBall gives officers a new option

By Joe Nelson
San Bernardino Sun

Officer Francisco Velasquez eyes the laser scope of a PepperBall gun outside the Beaumont, Calif. Police Department. He maneuvers the red dot produced from the scope onto the surface of a metal storage bin and fires a rapid succession of shots.


The small, round plastic projectiles explode upon impact with the steel. Small clouds of baby powder, the projectiles' contents, fill the air.

These projectiles are only used for training. Live rounds are filled with powderized pepper spray that temporarily blinds suspects and give police the upper hand in unruly situations.

Some law enforcement agencies, including the Beaumont and Banning police departments, have opted for PepperBall guns because of concerns about Taser guns.

"Pepper spray is organic, just cayenne pepper and compressed water, and I think that's less lethal than something chemical or electronic,' said Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, which also uses PepperBall guns instead of Taser guns.

While Taser guns still remain in the armory at the Banning Police Department, Police Chief John Horton decided to have his officers use the PepperBall guns instead.

As a former police chief of La Quinta and Coachella, Horton got to see firsthand the effectiveness and efficiency of PepperBall guns.

While all Banning police officers are trained in the use of the guns, only supervisors are authorized to carry them. They respond to calls with officers when the guns are needed, Horton said.

"That's just my preference as chief of police,' he said. "I feel it's a more superior weapon.'

Horton said part of his comfort and knowledge of the Jaycor PepperBall guns is attributed to the fact that he was involved in the testing and selection of them for the Riverside County Sheriff's Department several years ago.

A study released by the International Association of Police Chiefs on April 4 offered suggestions to law enforcement agencies across the country on developing policies associated with Taser gun use.

The suggestions included establishing medical protocol following the use of Taser guns and having more comprehensive training programs. The study also called for more research on the possible dangers of Tasers and a closer examination of in-custody deaths associated with them.

The association's study came on the heels of an Amnesty International report April 1, which stated there have been 103 Taser-related deaths in the United States and Canada between June 2001 and last March.

Representatives of Taser International couldn't be reached for comment.

"With all the controversy surrounding Tasers, it's the only way to go,' Beaumont police Lt. John Acosta said of the PepperBall guns, which his department started using about two years ago.

He said witnessing the effectiveness of PepperBall guns for crowd control during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle caught his department's interest.

Beaumont police officers keep the PepperBall guns, which resemble paintball guns, in the trunks of their patrol cars during each shift, Acosta said.

If the guns are used, officers are required to fill out a special PepperBall report form describing how the guns were used, areas of the body hit, injuries that occurred, and how many balls were fired at a person.

The PepperBall guns are consistent in results and safety, police said.

Many law enforcement agencies, however, stand by the reliability of Taser guns and maintain that different scenarios call for different tactics.

Redlands police officers, for example, keep PepperBall guns, Taser guns and bean bag guns in their armory, using each at their discretion depending on the situation, Sgt. Vonn Layel said.

Redlands police, Layel said, haven't had any serious injuries or deaths connected with Taser gun use.

"We've been pretty pleased with the Taser its ease of use, its effectiveness, its portability. It's a great tool,' Layel said.

But like with every gadget, there are advantages and disadvantages.

PepperBall guns, Layel said, are great for crowd disbursement and allow officers to hit targets from greater distances, while Taser guns require closer proximity.

Taser guns require officers to be between 11 feet and 21 feet of their intended targets, Acosta said.

PepperBall guns can maintain accuracy up to 30 feet for hitting people and are great for crowd control at distances up to 100 feet, said Velasquez, the Beaumont Police Department's rangemaster.

PepperBalls, however, have been known to sometimes jam in the hoppers, which attach to the top of the gun and hold the balls before they are chambered for firing, Layel said.

Some officers, Layel said, have even had PepperBalls rupture in the trunks of their patrol cars, exposing them to trace amounts of the pepper spray.

Taser guns also are portable and can be carried on an officer's belt, while PepperBall guns and their accessories need to be hauled in the trunks of patrol cars, Layel said.

To maintain accuracy and hit a target, PepperBall guns can be fired from a distance of up to 30 feet. Firing them at greater distances, say up to 100 feet, are effective for crowd disbursement, Velasquez said.

For example, in a riot or unruly situation, police can fire a pepper ball projectile about the size of a paintball into a crowd of people, where it hits the ground and emits the pepper spray.

That usually disperses a crowd quickly, Velasquez said.

Though they don't cause serious damage, PepperBalls tend to cause welts the size of grapefruits on people struck by them.

"You hit someone with one of these things, and they're going to comply,' Acosta said.

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