Gadgets Offer Cops Alternative to Deadly Force
March 31, 2003
BY BILL LAITNER
Detroit Free Press
Facing a man brandishing syringes, Hazel Park police took no chances. They shot him with a beanbag.
"The guy immediately dropped the syringes and went into a fetal position," said Hazel Park Police Chief David Niedermeier.
In seconds, the suspect -- who is said to have choked his wife unconscious -- was in handcuffs. It was Hazel Park's first shot at a new approach to policing, one spreading quickly across Michigan -- the use of new less-than-lethal weapons.
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Hazel Park police had feared the man would barricade himself in his home, maybe to get a gun or hurt his kids. They also feared he'd stab them with dirty needles. So . . . BLAM! The new-fangled beanbag projectile, filled with sand and fired from a standard shotgun, slammed into the man's thigh about three weeks ago.
The result? One suspect in custody with a very ugly welt. Niedermeier has smiled since, because of what didn't happen.
Absent was the cascade of worry he knows too well -- a person dead at police hands, the media firing questions, a family giving tearful interviews, and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
That happened to Niedermeier's department in November. A mentally ill man stopped breathing and died after police subdued him for hospitalization -- but not before he'd injured three officers.
The family has sued Hazel Park, according to a news release from Geoffrey Fieger's law office.
With the specter of such lawsuits, demand has mushroomed for the newest less-than-lethal weapons. But they aren't fail-safe, said Lansing lawyer James O'Leary, an expert on using deadly force.
"At some point, these weapons will kill someone. You'll hit somebody with a bad heart," O'Leary said. Still, he said, "It's much better than shooting someone."
Hazel Park's police chief plans to demonstrate the new gear to City Council members today.
In the November incident, Hazel Park officers didn't fire a beanbag because "the situation unfolded way too fast," Niedermeier said. But they did use pepper spray, law enforcement's most common less-than-lethal weapon. It did nothing to stop the psychotic man's karate kicks, the chief said.
Pepper spray is often ineffective on those with severe mental illness, psychologists say.
"But we might've used Tasers if we'd had them," Niedermeier said. Tasers are electric stun guns, and they're a buzzword this spring in Michigan police stations.
About 50 departments have seen Taser demonstrations. This week, the Oakland County Sheriff's Department will take delivery of 200 Tasers. The department was Michigan's first to train with them, after Michigan legalized them for police in December.
Detroit police, ordered by the U.S. Justice Department to get less-than-lethal weapons, might choose one this week, said Deputy Chief Tara Dunlop.
Hazel Park has trained some officers on Taser use and now seeks a grant to put a Taser in every squad car. The department also has ready another less-than-lethal device, called a sponge round.
"It looks like half a racquetball," said Lt. Michael Kolp.
Shot from a special launcher, a sponge round slamming a suspect's flesh should "quickly adjust their thought pattern," he quipped.
Hazel Park's less-than-lethal gear was purchased last year with federal grants. As with all less-than-lethal devices, if used properly "there's no penetration and no significant injury," Kolp said.
So, if Hazel Park police officers can save a threatening suspect from serious injury or death, they will. But there's one condition, Chief Niedermeier warned -- that officers don't get hurt or killed, either.
"We'll always have another officer there equipped with a firearm," he said.