Police opt more often for less-lethal weapons


Call it a kinder, gentler, less-lethal lethal weapon.

Twice in the past two weeks, Baltimore police officers have successfully used beanbag guns to disable knife-wielding suspects in standoffs.

The beanbag guns, which are known as less-lethal weapons, fire 2-inch-square bags of lead pellets instead of traditional bullets. The beanbags cause injuries ranging from cuts and bruises to death, depending on where, and from what distance, the suspect is struck.

"This is the law enforcement tool of the future," Officer Wayne Adams said before demonstrating the beanbag gun and two other less-lethal weapons used by city police. "This is a way for us to take people into custody without using deadly force, without me or the other person getting hurt."

A demonstration last week at the police firing range in Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County was designed to show off the less-lethal weapons being used by city police. In addition to beanbag guns, police use stun guns and capture nets.

The stun gun shoots low-voltage electricity a distance of up to 15 feet, which causes a person's muscles to constrict involuntarily when struck. The capture net is evocative of Spider-Man: It is fired from a flashlight-sized tube, propelled by a 9 mm blank cartridge, to contain a suspect.

These weapons, Adams emphasized, are intended to be used only by specially trained officers in specific cases, usually standoffs, in which deadly force is not considered necessary.

About 348 Baltimore police officers spread among 12 units have been trained to use the weapons. Beanbag guns have been used six times in Baltimore since police acquired the weapons three years ago, with no fatalities.

Officers using these weapons usually are supported by traditionally armed officers, Adams said. As if to underscore the amount of noise and confusion at a police standoff, as the officer spoke, sirens and gunshots from a nearby police recruit training exercise could be heard in the background.

City police began using less-lethal weapons in 1997, after a highly publicized incident in which a man armed with a knife outside Lexington Market was fatally shot by an officer. The shooting, which was recorded on videotape, did not show an immediate threat against the officer.

Although the event was ruled a justified shooting by the state's attorney's office, it prompted the department to find other ways to control people who make threats with weapons other than firearms.

In one of two recent incidents, city police used a beanbag gun last month to disarm a man with a 10-inch knife and rescue a 1-year-old child he had taken hostage. In the other instance, say city police, they used a beanbag gun to disarm a woman with a knife who was threatening to kill herself and a police officer.

Police officers can't use the beanbag gun in every case, Adams said. Last month, a man armed with a knife allegedly lunged at an officer, who shot and killed him.

Six people in the United States have been killed by beanbag guns, he said.

"Getting hit with the gun is like being hit with a 97-mph fastball thrown by a major-league pitcher," Adams said.

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