Impact rounds are being used with ever increasing frequency, and additional agencies are signing on everyday. With that in mind, this text will address some of the critical and recurring issues involved in their safe and effective use.
"That which we call a rose by any other name, would smell as sweet."
-- Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
Translation please? Juliet is telling Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, much like the plethora of terms we use to describe impact projectiles today. The rounds are designed to deliver impact energy from a safer than contact range; nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, we have attached labels to the devices that focus on our intent, as opposed to their operational function, including:
• less lethal
• low lethality
• reduced lethality
• less than lethal
• force less than deadly
Terms such as this covertly suggest to the ill informed that their use precludes any possibility of death. As you might expect, this can be problematic should a negative outcome occur. For the record, the statistical probability of a properly selected and deployed impact round resulting in a death is effectively zero. Likewise, the devices have been involved in fourteen deaths in the U.S. and Canada since 1971, and this paradox (non-lethal round/fatal outcome) and terms related to it have not gone unnoticed.
As an example, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (Deorle v. Rutherford (263 F. 3rd 1106) set its sights on the term "bean bag", and noted that such innocent words were a, "euphemism that grossly underrates the dangerousness of the projectile, that is not some sort of hacky-sack; it is a projectile capable of inflicting serious injury or death, rather than some child's toy." Duly noted.
Impact projectiles are just that; rounds designed to deliver impact energy as opposed to penetration. In order to avoid potential confusion, make sure that in policy, training, press releases, etc., they should always be referred to accordingly.
"Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand."
-- Neil Armstrong
Without a doubt there are mysteries in this profession, and lots of things to wonder about-but here's some good news: There are no mysteries concerning the deaths and serious injuries that have occurred following the deployment of impact rounds, and it is easy to understand what actually happened in every case:
An officer with good intentions fired an impact round, which struck a part of the suspect's body that was unable to withstand the impact energy. As a result, something vital was damaged and a death or serious injury occurred.
The first step towards managing this issue involves removing the mystery as to cause, which we've just done. The second step involves understanding how to deal with the cause, which basically involves the following:
A. Use good rounds -- generally defined as single projectiles that are accurate within their likely operational range, and that are able to efficiently and consistently transfer impact energy to the target.
B. Use them in a logical and defensible manner -- defined as deploying the rounds when they are truly needed, and targeting a body part that balances the need to stop the behavior with the acceptability of the potential injury.
We know how law enforcement has killed people with impact rounds-no mystery there. The challenge is to focus on addressing the cause, and ensuring that those who procure the rounds, train the officers, and deploy them in the field understand this as well.
"The color of truth is gray".
-- Andre Gide
When it comes to impact projectiles, two of police managements greatest fears involve:
1. Officers firing buckshot or slugs when they meant to fire an impact round.
2. Officers on the scene of an impact round deployment delivering "sympathetic live fire", when they incorrectly react to an officer firing what they believe to be deadly force ammunition.
In response to this concern, American policing has been over run by "loud" colored shotguns; neon green, yellow, orange, etc., in hopes of addressing the foundational misunderstandings that have allowed such tragedies to occur. It is important to note that coloring the weapons in such a fashion will prevent mistakes concerning their intended use. It is more important to note that the coloring in no way guarantees what round is actually in the gun, and relying on that (color) can have serious and or fatal consequences. Shotguns colored and "dedicated" to impact rounds have been found to "accidentally" contain deadly force ammunition, and a number of people have been injured and killed as a result.
For the record; coloring shotguns and dedicating them to impact rounds is a good idea, as long as agencies recognize that:
• The weapons are "dedicated" in appearance only, and the color has nothing to do with the actual ammunition contained inside.
• The "dedicated" weapon is only as safe as the last person who handled it.
• The agency must adopt an absolute process of "down load-up load" pre-service round verification, to ensure that the contents are as intended.
Dedicated impact projectile systems are generally safe and effective. Likewise, agencies that become "color blind" fail to recognize the potential flaws in such a system, and risk repeating the tragedies of the past.
"Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions."
-- Author Unknown
Many of the decisions concerning the deployment and use of impact rounds have been challenging, with one of the earliest debates focusing on the assignment of weapons.
Some progressive agencies issued them exclusively to supervisors and special weapons team members in hopes that the "better decision maker-better training" skill sets might decrease the probability of a negative outcome. Unfortunately, they quickly learned that the sergeant and SWAT operator were almost never available when needed. The "enhanced skill set" group was off approving a strip search or pumping iron, while the line troops danced with a drunk toting a pitch fork.
With that issue effectively "fleshed out", most agencies began giving impact rounds to first responders-those who would actually get there in time to do something about a situation. Unfortunately, as one problem was resolved, another cropped up. Should every line officer be issued impact rounds?
At first glance it might appear obvious that any officer empowered to use deadly force, should likewise be empowered to use force legally considered less. Unfortunately, the impact projectile decision is usually harder to make than the deadly force one. The need to stop a deadly threat is obvious, and the immediate application of lethal force is justified, necessary, and appropriate. But how clear is the decision to use an impact round when the suspect holds a knife to his own throat?
Does the officer shoot? Does he negotiate? If so, for how long? What if the suspect starts to walk away? What if he only threatens to? What if he begins to self mutilate, or simply says he will?
These are decisions that have to be made, and marginal decision makers will struggle when facing them. As such, special consideration must be given to choosing the officers who will carry this potentially life saving technology. The focus should be on selecting those with proven high risk decision making capability, as opposed to non-performance based criteria such as seniority or assignment. The success of your entire program hangs in the balance of a single bad call/shot, and as such, the technology is simply too valuable to leave this possibility to chance.
The best indication of what will occur in the future, is determined by examining the past. Successful impact projectile programs involve assigning the technology to proven line operators, who are then properly trained and empowered to use the tool-with out supervisory approve-when logical, necessary, and appropriate.