Understanding less lethal combat shooting: Lessons learned from Boston's FN303 incident
By Senior Team Leader Joseph Garcia
Recently, the law enforcement community was rocked by the sudden death of a young protester who was killed when she was accidentally shot in the eye with a less-lethal FN303 weapon.
The initial reports of the death of this young protester sent shock waves of concern through the nation about the FN303 weapon. I personally received dozens of emails and phone calls from as far away as Europe and Hawaii.
This article is not being written to defend the actions of the officer involved nor has this been written in approval or disapproval of the manufacturer, FNH USA, a Belgium-based company with an office in McLean, Va.
I have written this article for those administrations who have raised the red flag and are considering taking a big step back from advancing their teams to the next level. Before you throw out the baby with the bath water, read on. After you've been educated, then make your decision.
My initial reaction to the report and the ensuing emails and calls was to calm down all of the concerns and investigate what happened. According to my own investigation and my sources, here's what I've found out:
- An officer fired the FN303 into the crowd.
- The officer was not trained on the FN303.
- The officer fired the weapon in low light conditions.
- Protesters were very active and disorderly.
- It was a very high stress environment.
- The protester was not purposely singled out, she was at the "wrong place at the wrong time."
Some started to question the accuracy of the FN303. Let me say this without any reservation or hesitation: In my opinion, and more importantly, in my experience firing hundreds of rounds from this weapon, the FN303 is the most accurate less lethal weapon in the world!
Used correctly by an experienced, trained, operator, this weapon is the most effective less lethal weapon on the market today. As a master instructor with more than a thousand hours teaching less lethal CERT operations throughout the world, I readily stake my reputation on this weapon's accuracy and effectiveness.
Stress Shooting or Stressed Out!
FNH USA has an excellent six-hour instructor armor program. Their program is a standard manufacturer's training program. It should definitely not be the extent of training on the FN303 through which we send operators. We expect operators to be able to go into a high stress environment and operate this weapon in a high intensity environment. We must therefore ensure they have the most possible training.
For example, analyze the standard firearms training that law enforcement officers go through. We do not teach them how to just load, shoot and reload. We teach them combat shooting. The community as a whole has learned its lesson from officers dying in the field.
The same is true for less-lethal. US C-SOG was the first in the country to develop a less lethal combat program that is now used by correctional facility CERT units throughout the world.
Lt. Cliff Metaxa of the Lake County, Ill. Sheriff's Office, for example, makes it mandatory that all of their team members, including team command staff, complete an intensive 16-hour FN303 combat program. This program covers all of the manufacturer's instructor guidelines and then enhances that basic training with intensive skills development, including:
- Combat Reloading
- Combat Weapons Safety
- Muzzling Drills
- Contact Drills
- Gas Mask Shooting Drills
- SCBA Drills
- Shoot/Don't Shoot Scenarios
- Breaking Down a Weapon with a Gas Mask and without a Gas Mask
- Recovery Operations
- Laser Targeting (Using the ALD Green Laser System)
- Multiple Target Engagement
- Alpha Bravo Drills
- CQRC™ Close Quarters Riot Control Drills
Shooting Qualifications (Under Extremely High Stress)
Lake County Sheriff's Office CRT operators are expected to engage and hit a target from 7 to 15 yards away and put each shot into a 4"X4" colored circle or square. They do a number of exercises in gas masks, then SCBA, then without gas mask with light, then they repeat the same drills with low light under heavy noise and sound. The operators still have to use verbal commands and demonstrate weapon safety and muzzle discipline.
Talk about tough: This is a pass or fail course with qualifications done on a monthly basis for his high-speed team of 16 operators. His team can be called to respond to a situation at anytime; the FN303 is their primary less lethal weapon.
Measuring your Less Lethal Program
The fact that you have a less-lethal program does not automatically eliminate the ugly "death" word. In fact, less-lethal, if used incorrectly, can seriously injure or even kill. We have seen beanbags kill suspects and inmates. We have also seen OC/CN/CS contribute to the death of suspects and inmates. We have seen electronic stun device related deaths, not necessarily as the cause, but nevertheless associated with the death of a suspect or inmate. The same goes for rubber bullets, DD, IED, wooden batons, etc.
Trainers, if you are responsible for the less lethal program in your facility, don't just rely on factory certifying your people. There are lives in your hands. Like Lt. Metaxa, give them the most aggressive, realistic, and SAFE training as possible. Put them through a combat course that will train them how to handle a less lethal weapon, DD, IED, OC, etc. Just because it's not a lethal gun does not mean that your people don't need to be trained in a combat mode. On the contrary, because you have less-lethal options, you should place more focus on the combat aspects of less lethal.
Whether you are police, corrections riot team, or special operations team, your people are more likely to use these less lethal devices than lethal. (I am not saying not to train your people in combat for lethal, or that lethal is less important. I am saying that less-lethal and lethal operators should receive the same intense combat training!)
Dress For Combat, not for Show!
Many times on TV we see officers and operators wearing equipment that looks like they just walked out of a sporting goods store. In many cases the safety equipment that some are using is cumbersome and dangerous. I was watching a team during a riot training operation using large gloves made for what looked liked rappelling.
The fingers were thick and bulky and the operator was having a hard time manipulating the trigger of his weapon. Obviously, if you're on a weapon you want to make sure that your hands are protected; however, at the same time this protection should not hinder your ability to manipulate the weapon or fix malfunctions, etc. An excellent glove would be the Damascus Interceptor or Halo series.
For headgear it must be understood that you can't have too much protection such that the operators' actions are slowed or their flexibility and dexterity hindered. It amazes me how agencies pay more than a hundred dollars for bulky, cumbersome helmets that do not fit properly.
Most of the helmets on the market made for "Corrections Riot Control" were designed for yesterday's operations. A simple yet highly effective protection helmet is the Pro-tec series helmet. It provides maximum protection and allows the head to breathe, while allowing maximum flexibility and movement of the head. The blunt trauma rating is also very high. These are just a few examples of equipment issues that need to be addressed.
Here's the bottom line: Some officers and operators are not training with the appropriate equipment. Most of all they are not training with the equipment they are using. To go into a serious combat situation whether riot, hostage rescue situation, etc. with equipment that you have not properly trained with could prove to be a catastrophic and deadly mistake.
Click here to see additional details on products. The manufacturers have put a tremendous amount of thought into operators' needs for equipment and have broken it down by category.
Improving Accuracy through Optics
There is only one type of shooting: Accurate shooting. Nothing else is acceptable. Why do we use optics? Because increased accuracy in high stress situations is crucial. That is why companies like Trijicon™ are a major leader in optics.
Operators put into a shooting situation, whether less-lethal or lethal, have to deal with adrenaline. Optics are designed to enhance the operator's accuracy and eliminate the guesswork that leads to inaccurate shooting.
But wait, you say: An FN303, sniper rifle, sub gun, etc. is accurate out of the box. You're right: It is the operator that is inaccurate, not the weapon! That's why the ALD SE525 Green Laser Optic combo system was developed. Combine your weapon with this optics system and you will immediately see the difference.
To operate a less-lethal or lethal system without an optic system such as the ALD Green Laser system only hinders your operators and potentially increases your agency liability.
I could not imagine shooting a less lethal or lethal weapon wearing a gas mask without optics such as the ALD Green Laser or Trijicon™ Optics Systems or both!
Don't think of optics as an accessory. Think of it as a necessity.
Could the situation in Boston have been avoided? If the information given so far proves to be true, the answer is yes. However, I will not Monday morning quarterback any officer or operator. I was not there. I can only say that though this was a tragic accident. We, as an industry, will learn and improve our tactics, equipment and training so that the death of this young woman will not be in vain.
CERT / SWAT trainers, scrutinize your training program. Ask the hard questions. Implement the hard, but necessary improvements. Invest the money in the right gear. The way you and your team handles a shooting incident, cell extraction, riot control situation, or high-risk transport reflects your training program. Make sure you train the way you plan to fight. If it's good enough for the U.S. military, it's good enough for YOU.
"Ut Ceteri VIvent" - "So That Others May Live"
Senior Team Leader Joseph Garcia
U.S. Corrections Special Operations Group
Williamsburg, VA 23188