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Police Use of Force: The Impact of Less-Lethal Weapons and Tactics

A new study suggests that less-lethal weapons decrease rates of officer and offender injuries.

In the mid-19th century, police officers in New York and Boston relied on less-lethal weapons, mostly wooden clubs. By the late 1800s, police departments began issuing firearms to officers in response to better-armed criminals. Today, many law enforcement agencies are again stressing the use of less-lethal weapons, but they are using devices that are decidedly more high-tech than their 19th-century counterparts.

Use of force, including less-lethal weaponry, is nothing new to policing, and in any use-of-force incident, injury is a possibility. Researchers have estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of arrests involve use of force. A group of researchers led by Geoffrey P. Alpert, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, recently completed an NIJ-funded study of injuries to officers and civilians during use-of-force events. Injury rates to civilians ranged from 17 to 64 percent (depending on the agency reporting) in use-of-force events, while injury rates to officers ranged from 10 to 20 percent. Most injuries involved minor bruises, strains and abrasions. Major injuries included dog bites, punctures, broken bones, internal injuries and gunshot wounds.

Can New Technologies Decrease Injuries?

Advances in less-lethal technology offer the promise of more effective control over resistive suspects with fewer serious injuries. Pepper spray was among the first of these newer, less-lethal weapons to achieve widespread adoption by police forces. More recently, conducted energy devices (CEDs), such as the Taser, have become popular.

More than 11,000 American law enforcement agencies use CEDs, but their use has not been without controversy. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union have questioned whether CEDs can be used safely, and whether they contribute to civilian injuries and incustody deaths. Policymakers and law enforcement officials want to know whether CEDs and other less-lethal weaponry are safe and effective, and how police should use them.

Check out more details on this study at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/267/use-of-force.htm.

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