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Devices urged to deflate crime; Road spikes, bean-bag shells sought by police


Howard County police Sgt. Kenneth Fleischmann gunned his car to 73 mph on U.S. 29 in Ellicott City yesterday, pretending to be a fleeing suspect. He didn't get far.

Sgt. Dave Richards had placed spikes on the road, and activated them with a flip of a switch. Fleischmann drove over them and heard a loud pop before air rushed out of his tires, bringing him to a stop a quarter-mile down the highway.

Yesterday, the two demonstrated one of the latest tools for use in high-speed chases. If the county approves purchasing the road spikes and bean-bag shells -- fired to stop suspects, not to kill them -- the department will be the first area police agency to have both.

Police say they need the latest technology to fight crime. They chose these tools after considering various devices on the market to slow speeding cars and dis-able suspects short of shooting them.

A layer of road spikes is about as long as the width of two road lanes. It is lined with more than 100 quills -- hollow needles designed to puncture a tire, remain in it and drain it of air in about 40 seconds.

An officer rolls out the flattened spikes ahead of a chase and raises them with the flip of a switch, operated by a cord controlled from the side of the road. Afterward, the officer can flip a switch, flattening the quills and allowing pursuing police cars and other motorists to drive by.

"The beauty of it is that it allows other vehicles to pass by," said Louis Feldman, an engineering consultant for the Maryland State Police. "Other types of spikes do not allow that."

During yesterday's test, 11 quills punctured three of Fleischmann's four tires, but he didn't lose control.

"They are not designed to blow out the tire," Richards said. "We want the driver to stay in control."

Each set of road spikes costs about $600, and police would like to purchase 25.

Richards said the county needs them because officers are faced with more and faster chases. Over the past five years, there have been 12 to 15 such chases a year in the county.

It isn't only the fleeing suspect whose safety is at stake.

"We are hoping [the spikes] drastically reduce the dangers of a high-speed chase," he said.

State police use a road spike system called a stop stick. It requires officers to either throw a triangular-shaped device with spikes or lay a line of them in front of a car, using cloth to connect individual sections, and immediately yank them off the road after the driver passes.

Montgomery County police will request road spikes in their budget this year. Harford County has begun training its officers on how to use them.

Bean-bag shells hold small bags containing lead pellets. Fired from a shotgun, they allow officers to deal with nearby suspects who do not pose a deadly threat.

"Someone has to have the capability to threaten you but not be advancing toward you," Richards said.

"When [the shells] strike someone, they increase their impact over a large area" because the bags are larger than bullets.

Richards said police using the shells would be backed up by officers with guns, because a "situation could change at any minute."

The shells -- which cost about $5 each -- would be aimed first at the thigh, arms and elbows. Now, officers use pepper spray, which can be less accurate, said police spokesman Sgt. Morris Carroll.

Baltimore police use bean-bag shells, while Baltimore County police use rubber bullets for the same situations.

The interest in bean-bag shells as nonlethal weapons is as much about protecting citizens as it is officers, who face a liability issue every time someone is injured, said state police administrative officer Gary Prochaska.

"It gives police officers another way out," Prochaska said.

Said Baltimore police Sgt. Chris Street:

"You don't want to have to kill someone to save them from themselves."

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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