After a spate of officer-related shootings involving Anne Arundel County police, a county patrol officer used a less-lethal beanbag shotgun this week to disarm a suspect they described as violent and suicidal.
It marks the first time a county patrol officer has used the recently issued weapon to address a threat. The beanbag shotgun discharges a sack of pellets, the impact of which is meant to disable a subject without causing severe injury.
After police shot three people -- including a mentally ill college freshman wielding a pair of scissors -- in three weeks this spring, some County Council members had urged equipping more officers with weapons such as stun guns and beanbag shotguns.
In Monday's incident, an officer shot Timothy Lee Carnathan, 44, of Maryland City once in the chest with a beanbag round after he threatened himself and police officers with a steak knife, police said.
Carnathan was shot at a range of six to eight feet but was not seriously wounded, said Lt. David D. Waltemeyer, Jr. a police spokesman.
"It worked great. Absolutely textbook," Waltemeyer said. Beanbag weapons were issued to patrol officers for the first time in mid-May. So far 38 officers carry them, and two others are awaiting training on using them.
Experts lauded the department for arming some patrol officers with the beanbag shotguns, but cautioned that in this instance the weapon was fired at too close a range and Carnathan could have been seriously injured or killed.
"In my opinion, they got lucky," said Doreen Hudson, a civilian who heads the firearm analysis unit of the Los Angeles Police Department. "If [officers] use it at six feet and don't have a negative outcome, they'll make the assumption that [beanbag rounds] are safe at that distance."
Hudson spent two years studying beanbag round weapons after Los Angeles officers inadvertently killed two suspects while using the weapons in 1999. She headed a group that completely redesigned the specifications for that weapon. The Los Angeles police now have custom beanbag rifles. The results of her work are expected to be published this year in Police Chief, an industry magazine.
The optimal range for safely using the beanbag round is 21 to 45 feet, according to county Police Department guidelines, Waltemeyer said. But police officers are allowed to use the weapon at closer distances, he added.
Michael White, a professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said stun guns such as Tasers -- which deliver an electric shock -- are particularly effective against suspects who are eight to 12 feet from officers.
"The range of the Taser is a much closer range than what I'm seeing here with the beanbag [shotgun]. You can use the Taser in close quarters," he said.
County police are not equipped with stun guns, but the department has been considering issuing them. All county patrol officers carry handguns, batons and pepper spray. Baltimore County recently issued 10 Tasers to patrol officers as part of a pilot program.
The Anne Arundel police came under scrutiny after Justin Fisher, 18, a Salisbury University freshman, was shot and killed early May 14 by four county police officers. Police said Fisher charged officers with a pair of 9-inch scissors after a 30-minute standoff.
On May 4, an officer trying to serve an arrest warrant shot and wounded a suspect in Baltimore after the man allegedly fled from officers and drove toward them in a car. Two days earlier, an officer shot a suicidal man who allegedly raised a shotgun toward officers responding to a call. The man was wounded in the abdomen.
In May last year, a rookie police officer shot and killed an unarmed naked man who ran at him. Police said the man, who had fired shots before discarding his weapon, was delusional; the shooting was later deemed as justified by authorities.
Waltemeyer said that Carnathan's action presented officers with the potential for "a deadly force incident" -- meaning officers would likely have been justified in using their guns to disarm him. Police can use lethal force when they are physically threatened.
Waltemeyer gave this account of Monday's shooting:
Officers were called to the 200 block of Brock Bridge Road after a man was in the street striking passing cars with a metal pipe.
Police arrived just before 3 p.m. and the man retreated into his home. When officers found him in his bedroom, he held a steak knife to his chest, at times threatening himself and the officers. He "made several statements that the officers should shoot him," Waltemeyer said.
Officer Chuck Jones, a five-year veteran, shot him once with the beanbag round. The man fell backward onto his bed, and police took him into custody. He was taken to the Laurel Regional Hospital where he was evaluated and released.
Carnathan could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Police obtained a warrant charging Carnathan with two counts of felony assault on an officer, one count of first-degree assault and several lesser charges.
The beanbag weapons are not new to the county police force. Some nonpatrol officers have been armed with the weapons for 10 years. In that time the weapons were used four times and the department reported no problems with accuracy or penetration in that period.