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November 04, 2004
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Scott Buhrmaster Topics & Tactics for Law Enforcement
with Scott Buhrmaster

Boston probe into fan death to look at police mistakes, training, product failure

Statement of Support For Less-Lethal Options from PoliceOne

In the last several months, events involving less-lethal projectiles and electronic devices have put these force options under intense scrutiny. We have all witnessed emotional debate in the media and in other public forums over their safety. In the past, chemical aerosols have met with the same degree of controversy.

PoliceOne would like to remind you that this type of controversy, although unfortunate and admittedly troubling, is not new. Nor, in our opinion, is it cause to overreact in such a way as to reflexively eliminate any consideration of trying to resolve a pressurized situation with a less-lethal option when warranted.

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The recent incident in Boston that resulted in the death of a 21-year-old woman struck by a less-lethal projectile is clearly tragic and our heartfelt condolences go out to everyone involved. However, we feel compelled to voice our continued support for less-lethal options.

With appropriate training, product testing, and policy development, these options most certainly offer priceless opportunities to end dangerous encounters without the loss of life. We understand that this doesn’t mean that a death will never occur, thus the term "less-lethal" as opposed to "non-lethal". However, the odds of death are considerably reduced, much to the benefit of all involved.

In the face of this controversy, we would also like to caution officers to avoid falling prey to hesitation. When a situation warrants the application of force, it’s crucial to your safety and to the safety of those around you to apply it promptly in an effort to cease a threat and to control a dangerous situation as quickly as possible. Make every effort to avoid situational paralysis resulting from shaken confidence.

Scott Buhrmaster
Contributing Editor
PoliceOne.com


Boston Probe Into Fan Death to Look at Police Mistakes, Training, Product Failure

By Denise Lavoie, The Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) - A commission investigating the death of a college student during a Red Sox celebration will look not only at what went wrong that night, but also at police crowd control methods and weapons like the one believed to have caused the student''s death, the chairman of the panel said Wednesday.

Donald Stern, the former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, was tapped last week by Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O''Toole to lead an independent investigation into the Oct. 21 death of Victoria Snelgrove. Snelgrove died hours after a pellet fired by police penetrated her eye socket. Police used the pepper guns after some fans in a crowd estimated at 80,000 began hurling bottles, setting fires and rocking cars after the Red Sox defeated their archrivals, the New York Yankees, to win the American League pennant.

O''Toole said two separate investigations into the Oct. 21 death of 21-year-old Victoria Snelgrove will examine whether police had adequate training in the use of the compressed-air guns that fired the pellets, whether the guns worked properly and whether police made bad decisions as they tried to bring a rowdy crowd under control.

"We need to consider the possibility of human failure, product failure," O''Toole said in an interview with Associated Press reporters and editors Friday. "We have to consider every possibility, and it may be a combination of many factors."

Stern said he met Tuesday with O''Toole to discuss the scope of the panel''s investigation, which is separate from a police internal affairs probe and a review by the Suffolk District Attorney''s office.

"It''s going to be an independent commission capable of reaching independent judgments and getting access to whatever information the commission thinks it needs - period - with no limitations," Stern said.

"We do need to understand what happened that night, there''s no question about it. But we also need to look at these larger issues. ... What is this weapon that was used? What about the whole concept of less-lethal weapons? What''s out on the market? What has the training been for their use?"

Janice W. Howe, a former state prosecutor and an expert on product liability cases, will also sit on the commission. No other members have been chosen yet, but Stern said he expects another three or four people will be named soon.

The internal police investigation will examine whether police used excessive force and whether they were properly trained in the use of the FN303, a compressed-air gun made by FN Herstal.

The guns were purchased for this summer''s Democratic National Convention, but the violence expected by police during political demonstrations never materialized. Police used the weapons for the first time the night Snelgrove was killed.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley''s office will review the results of the police investigation and determine whether the use of force was legal and whether any criminal charges will be filed.

Kathleen O''Toole, who is not related to Robert O''Toole, said police are trying to get copies of videotape shot by local television stations to try to piece together exactly how police fired the weapons.

"I don''t know whether they fired randomly or not - that''s something we really need to look at," O''Toole said last week.

The commissioner said the investigation will also look at the decisions Robert O''Toole made that night as the senior ranking tactical commander on the scene.

"Some of the questions that will be asked is he had to make some split-second decisions - How far away were the other public order platoons? Could they have come to help? He apparently ... made a decision to quickly assemble a group of his highly trained special operations officers to assist him going in," O''Toole said.

She said the guns were highly recommended by officers inside and outside the department as a non-lethal weapon used for crowd control.

Media reports have raised questions about whether the police commander in charge of crowd control that night - Deputy Superintendent Robert O''Toole Jr. - and other officers had proper training.

FN Herstal has said that during training, officers are repeatedly told never to aim the gun at the neck or head. But at least two other fans besides Snelgrove were hit in the face by the pellets. 29 Boston police officers were trained to use the weapons.

Stern said there is no timetable for completion of the commission''s investigation.

"I think everyone understands it will be useful to get this done sooner rather than later, but it also needs to be done right," he said.

"The whole reason to do this is to figure out what happened that very tragic night in a transparent way and to address any policy issues that arise out of this so this doesn''t happen again."

About the author

If you have tactical information, compelling incidents, general comments or topics you would like to share, please contact Scott Buhrmaster, Managing Editor for PoliceOne.com and the Director of Training for the PoliceOne Training Network, at: buhrmastergroup@comcast.net




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