New weapons for police offer lifesaving advantage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sgt. Mark Gonder doesn't see the red dot of an Air Taser gun on his chest an instant before two metal probes send their jolt of 50,000 volts of electricity into him.

Once hit, he crumples, helpless and harmless - enough time for another officer to handcuff him.

Gonder, a Carroll County sheriff's deputy, agreed to play a suspect in a demonstration of one of an array of tools, known as "less lethal weapons," available to Maryland law enforcement officers. They're designed to stop suspects, not kill them - as long as those suspects aren't using a gun, which usually requires lethal force.

"We're always looking for ways to keep police officers safe, but less lethal weapons also benefit innocent bystanders and the kind of suspect whose problems may be more mental or medical than criminal," said Mark Canton, a firearms instructor at the state's new police training center in Sykesville. The weapons were demonstrated at the training center to 13 officers from seven Maryland law enforcement agencies for the first time this month.

They saw:

The Air Taser. It looks like a 9 mm pistol but fires two metal barbed probes attached to wires from as far as 21 feet. As they strike the suspect, a low-amperage shot of 50,000 volts is delivered to the suspect's muscles, causing them to constrict and fail. A sight shines a red laser at the target, increasing accuracy. The pistol costs about $400 and each nonreusable cartridge of probes costs about $20.

The PepperBall launch- er. This is a rifle powered by a high-pressure air tank that fires marble-sized plastic projectiles. They contain a peppery powder that causes skin and eye irritation when striking its target. The rifle launcher costs about $700; when purchased in bulk, each round costs about $1.

The Net Cannon. A hand-held launcher delivers an 8-by-8-foot mesh webbing from a distance of 8 to 15 feet. The launcher costs about $130 and each net cartridge costs $130.

The beanbag. It is fired from a modified 12-gauge shotgun and discharges a 2 1/2 -inch flexible sock filled with 40 ounces of lead shot. It delivers an impact from 5 to 20 yards. Most agencies have shotguns; the beanbags cost about $4.50 each.

As re- cently as June, police in Howard County and Baltimore City used beanbags to disarm knife-wielding suspects in unrelated incidents. Baltimore police began using the beanbag gun in 1997 following public outcry after an officer fatally shot a man armed with a knife outside Lexington Market.

"About 60 law enforcement agencies across Maryland have already inquired about our Less-Lethal School," said Shannon Bohrer, range master at the firearms training facility that opened this year as part of the center. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be more lethal backup ready when using these weapons, say experts.

"Sometimes, lethal force is the only realistic option for officer safety," Canton said.

Whenever lethal force is used, one of the first questions asked is whether any other options were available to police, said 1st Sgt. Keith Runk, commander of the Maryland State Police tactical unit.

"It's nice to have a choice to use less lethal rather than lethal force without having to go hands-on with a suspect and risk getting hurt or killed," he said.

Some law enforcement experts believe less lethal technology could reduce officers' and suspects' injuries by 90 percent. Sacramento, Calif., police were so impressed with Air Taser that they began steps this year to arm each of their patrol officers with one, though not as a replacement for their guns.

Gonder was most surprised at how instantly the pain from the Air Taser's shock was gone when the electric current was shut off. Only one of the probes needs to hit a suspect for the weapon to operate.

"I'm fine," he said after the demonstration. "It felt like it burned my shoulder, but there's only a small red mark on my skin."

The Air Taser is considered an improvement over stun guns, which have been around for a years, said Deputy 1st Class Robert Letmate of the Carroll sheriff's department.

Tasers can be fired from up to 21 feet; stun guns require the suspect to be touched by the gun, he said. Stun guns shock the central nervous system and can cause sudden loss of bladder or bowel control, while the Air Taser goes directly to the muscles and leaves no after-effect, officers said.

"After 30 years in law enforcement, I didn't expect the taser to be so good," Letmate said. "Getting it [for our agency] would be a great advantage to officers and citizens, but mainly to a suspect who might have mental problems. Having less-lethal capability at the scene could save his life."

One small disadvantage of the Air Taser is that it doesn't work as well if the suspect is standing on concrete because that surface doesn't conduct electricity as well as grass, dirt or asphalt, Canton said.

Of all the less lethal weapons, the Net Cannon is the least risky to suspects because it usually trips them, allowing officers to move in. The net might be a bit riskier for officers because suspects can still punch or kick while entangled in the net, Canton said.

Beanbags bring down a suspect, but the risk of injury or death is greater, Canton said. "One shot can knock a man down, but sometimes it takes four or five shots to stop him, and they may be fatal," he said.

About 10 deaths in the United States have been attributed to beanbag and other less lethal weapons, including one in Maryland, said Springfield, Mo., police Lt. Ron Hartman, who teaches less lethal weaponry for the National Tactical Officers Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The death in Maryland occurred when an armed 61-year-old Prince George's County woman was killed in August 1992 by a rubber projectile shot by county sheriff's deputies. The bullet broke three of her ribs, and a bone splinter punctured her heart.

Officers in most state jurisdictions carry pepper spray canisters on their gun belts, but PepperBall might be a more valuable tool because it can be fired from a distance, without endangering an officer, Canton said.

PepperBalls were fired to help disperse a rowdy crowd at a concert in Los Angeles last month during the Democratic National Convention.

Runk said the Special Tactical Assault Team Element, the state police tactical unit, has beanbags, an older model of taser and rubber rockets, a foam, baton-shaped projectile that knocks down victims. State police are considering purchasing the latest Air Tasers, the same as those demonstrated at the center, Runk said.

Baltimore County tactical officers have another type of less lethal weapon. Called Sage Co, it fires a hard plastic projectile meant to cause a blunt-force injury sufficient to knock down but not kill a suspect, a spokesman said.

Anne Arundel County tactical officers have rubber ammunition that is similar in purpose to Sage Co, as well as a beanbag gun, a spokesman said.

Prince George's County police have decided to add PepperBall to their arsenal, a spokesman said.

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