Police forces throughout the nation are turning to "less lethal" alternatives to traditional ammunition, according to a new report by The Associated Press. So far, departments in at least 20 cities in the U.S. and Canada are testing out bullet alternatives called "blunt impact projectiles," made by Micron Products Inc., in an effort to lower the number of deaths at the hand of police. But even these ostensibly safer alternatives can kill.
The Associated Press describes an object, similar to a rubber bullet, that is designed to cause pain, but not harm:
The projectiles do not penetrate the skin, like conventional bullets, but they do cause pain and discomfort. Officers are trained to shoot the projectiles at arms and legs. A person hit in the torso at close range during a disturbance in Canada got a large bruise but no lasting injury, said Gregory Sullivan, SDI's chief executive officer.
Still, the projectile is, well, a projectile, and shooting it at someone's head could lead to lethal damage. Again, The AP explains:
No one has been shot in the head with the projectiles at this point, and Sullivan acknowledged the possibility of a serious or deadly injury in the event of a close-range shot to the head.
Perhaps more damningly, the tool doesn't seem all that convenient to use. A sheriff in South Dakota told The AP that "this product is not practical to carry on a belt. You'd have to have the time to get it into place; then the opportunity would have to present itself for you to use it." So even if officers using the objects avoid dangerous shots to the head, they might not have the time or to reach for the projectile shooter over a regular gun. Not a ringing endorsement.
Back in July, the police force of Willimantic, Conn. became the first in the state to try out the less lethal FN 303, made by Belgian arms maker Fabrique Nationale de Herstal. FN 303 is essentially a forceful paintball gun. FN Herstal describes how it works:
The primary effect of the projectile is trauma, capable of stopping and neutralizing the aggressor immediately. Secondary effects from the projectiles can be delivered via a chemical payload, such as a marking or an irritating effect, depending on mission requirements.
A Wilmington patrolman told NBC Connecticut that "when [the projectile] hits you, it will splat out." The marking chemical agent will make the suspect identifiable to police, who can shoot at a suspect from more than 160 feet away with the FN 303.
Again, however, the weapon comes with caveats. Willimantic police spokesman Stan Parizo said to NBC Connecticut that "the head is off limits. The groin is off limits. The spine is off limits. The kidneys are off limits." FN Herstal offers its own disclaimer: "Misuse may result in injury or death. Never aim at face or head. Read operator's manual before use."
Most of the weapons we think of as less lethal than guns are often lethal. Tasers have killed hundreds of people, and wounds from rubber bullets can be fatal. In an article for The Atlantic, former police officer and law professor Seth Stoughton explains that alternative training methods could go a long way to reducing police violence, pointing out that "the pepper spray, baton, Taser, and gun that are so easily accessible to officers are meant to be tools of last resort." He wrote:
In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.
Even with new weapons and training, change will likely take a long time.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.