Special Report II: Less Lethal: An Evaluation of Less-Lethal Munitions

By Heal, Sid | Law & Order, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Special Report II: Less Lethal: An Evaluation of Less-Lethal Munitions


Heal, Sid, Law & Order


Less-lethal munitions are testaments to law enforcement's desire to keep peace and safety within its communities. However, many times citizens have been harmed by faulty or misused less-lethal force. Law enforcement agencies make their best attempts at resolving incidents using something less than lethal force, but may still have unintentional and tragic consequences.

Since the mid-1990s, the dominant form of less lethal options available for law enforcement have been projectiles commonly referred to as "extendedrange, impact munitions." These munitions take on a variety of forms but all are fired from some type of launcher and work by impacting on or near the target. Since their introduction, scores of lives have been saved because these munitions offer an alternative option in those situations that have historically required deadly force.

As these munitions continued to be developed, they took on a variety of forms ranging from single projectiles to multiple pellets to cylindrical batons to hollow projectiles filled with liquids and powders. They are made from products such as rubber, foam, wood and plastic, and in some cases contain other agents such as chemical agents and dyes. Some are designed to be launched from shotguns, others from tear gas launchers; some require their own special launching devices. Each has a maximum effective range and, in most cases, a minimum safety distance. They have all proven effective to varying degrees and useful in different circumstances.

Therein lies the root of the problem: how can a law enforcement agency make an informed decision on which is best for a particular situation? The problem is difficult enough as posed, but is particularly complex because of the variety of available munitions coupled with the unpredictable nature of law enforcement confrontations. Munitions that depend solely on blunt impact may be completely negated when a suspect is wearing heavy winter clothing in colder climates. Those designed for longer ranges may be dangerous at the closer ranges commonly encountered inside buildings. Some are designed to strike multiple targets and are inappropriate for controlling a single suspect in the midst of others. Some discriminating munitions use single-shot launchers that must be reloaded for multiple shots, hence if it is not immediately effective it may require an escalation of force to protect the officer or bystanders. There is no device that can address every climate, range or circumstance. Furthermore, no standards could be developed that would apply to the wide diversity of available munitions.

In late 1996, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department suggested a simple solution to the complex problem. Rather than attempting to establish standards, they recommended identifying and comparing the attributes common to all. Their reasoning was based upon the Consumer's Report method of comparing dissimilar products. Regardless of the style or brand of cameras, for instance, they all share characteristics such as price, weight, film size, lens focal length, and so forth, that are measured and reported to provide consumers with valuable information to make an informed choice. In the same manner, attributes for less-lethal, extended-range impact munitions could also be used to enable consumers to choose those they considered most important and compare them with similar munitions to make an informed choice.

A most fortuitous opportunity began developing in late 1997 when the Institute for Emerging Defense Technologies, under the auspices of Pennsylvania State University's Applied Research Laboratory, was established. Three members of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department were among the founding members and began working closely with the scientists at Penn State on a variety of projects, including the employment of less lethal force. In early July 2000, the Institute agreed to provide research scientists and fund what eventually became entitled, "The Attribute-- Based Evaluation of Less-Than-Lethal, Extended-Range, Impact Munitions," more commonly referred to as the "ABE Study. …

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