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N.C. agencies embrace BolaWrap to reduce risk of harming officers, build community trust

Edenton Police Department Chief said the remote-restraint devices are building trust in his community as they minimize harm to his officers and the residents they are paid to protect


By Virginia Bridges
The Charlotte Observer

EDENTON, N.C. — As the man’s eyes started to roll to the back of his head on a summer afternoon, Edenton police Cpl. Dominick Romano called EMS and shot Narcan up the man’s nose.

“It wasn’t bringing him back,” Romano said about the man who had bags of heroin spilling out of his pockets.

EMS arrived, put him on a stretcher and carried him to the ambulance. Romano and his partner waited just outside near North Street, a busy road in the small waterfront town during tourist season.

All of a sudden the ambulance doors swung open, Romano said, and the man bolted toward traffic.

“You know, like a mad man,” Romano said,

Romano followed. He pulled a small yellow and black device from his belt and yelled “Bola Bola Bola” while aiming a laser up the man’s legs. He fired.

Instead of the roar of a gun or the beeps of a Taser, an ear-bending pop echoed as a nearly 8-foot Kevlar cord with quadruple hooks flew toward the man’s legs with Batman-like speed.

When Romano deployed the BolaWrap, it didn’t make a great connection to the man’s pants, but he stopped and turned, which allowed officers to handcuff him, Romano said.

Edenton Police Chief Henry King thinks this new entry in policing technology is building trust in his community as it minimizes harm to his officers and the residents they are paid to protect.

Edenton was the first police department in North Carolina to try it out.

King is hoping many more North Carolina police departments will do the same, as part of an effort to reduce the risk of officers harming and even killing people who resist being detained.

“We call it force avoidance,” said King. “There is no pain to it.”

An alternative to traditional police strategies?

BolaWrap gives police a needed tool to address a crucial gap of time, when someone isn’t following verbal commands and starts putting himself or others in danger, King said.

“It’s a way we can get them into custody without having to use force. Because I tell people all the time, ‘force is not pretty,’” said King, president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.

King, 50, grew up in Durham and played football at N.C. Central University, where he majored in criminal justice. After he graduated, he joined the Marine Corps for four years and then was hired by the Rocky Mount Police Department in 2000. He was appointed as the Edenton chief in 2018.

King, a Black man, wanted to become a police officer after attending Durham’s then-Carrington Middle School, where the school resource officer inspired his career. “She was like a mother to us,” he said.

But not everybody was a fan of his decision.

When King told his grandmother he wanted to be an officer, she looked at him sideways, he said because of her negative experiences with the police.

Recognizing that some people don’t trust police because of what their parents and grandparents have said has influenced how King approaches his work.

“We have to accept that and understand and then work our way to bridge the gap to build that relationship and trust,” King said.

King heard about BolaWrap after a California officer he had attended management training with in Boston shared what was referred to as a “Batman device,” King said.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome,’” he said.

He reached out to the company based in Tempe, Arizona, and arranged for the North Carolina Justice Academy to hold a training session. King sent four officers to the training, and they asked for the chief to get it.

King then made BolaWrap presentations at Edenton’s Rotary Club and for the nurses at the hospital now known as ECU Health. Once he won them over, he said, he successfully sought a Governor’s Crime Commission grant for $25,000, which covered the BolaWraps, the cartridges and the holsters for him and his officers. The device costs $1,299, and the cassettes are $39.

Some officers were skeptical, King said, but came around over time.

Now, about 24 North Carolina agencies are using the BolaWrap, according to Allen Hurley, whose company helps distribute the device. Hurley plans to present it to about 40 agencies in March.

What is the bola?

The BolaWrap is used by 1,300 agencies across the United States and 63 countries, according to information provided by the company. The majority of the time, 81%, BolaWraps have been used on people with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Elwood “Woody” Norris, an independent inventor who created products such as Jabra cellphone headsets, started working on the BolaWrap in 2018 after a former partner asked him to come up with a device that would restrain someone without hurting the person or the officer, Norris said in a YouTube video.

Norris focused on an idea to modernize a device used by Argentine and Uruguayan horsemen who used bolas, leather cords with three iron balls, to entwine animals, he said.

In February, the Fairfax, Virginia police chief announced his department was the largest agency to purchase enough devices to arm all 800 officers after a trial run starting in 2022. Fairfax became the first big police department to order for the entire department, The Washington Post reported.

The Detroit Police Department announced in February it planned to add 20 more BolaWraps to the 13 the agency already ordered last year for members of a team that respond to mental health crises.

Corye Dunn, director of public policy for Disability Rights North Carolina, applauded the effort to reduce force, but also cautioned that restraint can be traumatic and should be minimized when working with people with disabilities.

“I just don’t want to give the false impression that restraint is always OK,” she said.

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