LAPD could roll out sponge guns citywide to curb escalation
The three-month pilot project was designed to expand LAPD's less-lethal options in a department effort to curb escalation
By Brenda Gazzar
Los Angeles Daily News
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles police have long used "less-lethal" launchers with sponge rounds for crowd control and by their elite SWAT team on individuals when less than deadly force may have been needed.
But in July, the Los Angeles Police Department equipped patrol officers from several stations, including the Mission Community Police Station in Mission Hills, with these "guns" and their 40 mm sponge rounds, which are intended to incapacitate but not kill a subject, to use on their beats for the first time.
The three-month pilot project, which ended Oct. 31, was designed to expand LAPD's "less-lethal" options, which already include Tasers, batons, pepper spray and beanbag rounds, on city streets and is part of a broader department effort to curb escalation, said Sgt. Richard Evans, LAPD's uniform and equipment coordinator.
"The goal is to de-escalate (a situation) as quickly as possible and bring about a resolution ... that is best for all," Evans said.
An LAPD committee is reviewing the "promising" data and will make a recommendation to Police Chief Charlie Beck about whether to expand the use of these launchers and sponge rounds to patrol officers department-wide, officials said.
The sponge rounds, which have a sponge-tipped plastic body and generally do not penetrate the skin, have reportedly been tested or are being used in patrol settings in other cities such as Duluth, Minnesota, Ferguson, Missouri, and Dallas in recent years as controversial police shootings around the country have ignited a national debate on officer use of force and race.
Sponge rounds generally hit harder and can be used at a farther distance than beanbag rounds, making it safer for officers and reducing the likelihood of long-term injury to the suspect, Evans said. The sponge rounds would not replace the beanbag rounds but would be used as an additional tool in an officer's toolbox, he said.
"Now, we can stay back 100 feet as opposed to being 30 to 40 feet where (a suspect) might charge us with the baseball bat, and we end up shooting them," Evans said.
Jamie McBride, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said he's "all for it," as long as their use on patrol does not cause officers to put themselves in harm's way.
"If someone is walking to you with a knife and starts to raise it, that's not the time to use a 'less lethal' weapon," he said. "We don't know if that knife is going to be thrown ... I'm not going to risk that."
The Los Angeles Police Commission asked LAPD officials earlier this year to report on all the "less-than-lethal" tools on the market so they could together determine whether they are properly equipping officers with the best available options, said Matt Johnson, president of the civilian panel that oversees the department.
"We always want our officers to use a 'less-than-lethal' option — if they can safely do so — than use a lethal option," Johnson said. The "whole point" of exploring this option is "so we have less people shot and killed by police officers."
A 'positive thing'
Sponge rounds are more expensive than beanbag rounds, but if LAPD's assessment of the sponge rounds is positive as anticipated, then "my expectation is we're going to ... find the money to do it," Johnson said.
Adrienna Wong, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said police moving away from deadly force is "generally a positive thing" but she stressed that even so-called less-than-lethal weapons can be lethal.
"There needs to be good policies and transparent policies about their use," she said.
In addition, pointing a weapon at someone, even if it's a "less-than-lethal" one, is often not an act of de-escalation, she argued.
"They should consider alternative tactics before they use any force," Wong said. "Just talking to people, if that's something that's available."
LAPD started using the sponge rounds in the early 1990s for crowd and riot control and by the Metropolitan Division's SWAT team on individuals as needed, Evans said.
In addition to the Mission station, the sponge launchers and the 40 mm rounds also were tested by patrol officers at the Metropolitan, Pacific, Southeast and Central divisions during the pilot program.
Up to 50 officers at each station, with the exception of the specialized Metropolitan Division where all officers were scheduled to be trained, received training and had the weapon at their disposal during the 90-day trial.
During the pilot, officers in these divisions shot the sponge rounds at individuals a total of five times, with each describing their use as effective, Evans said. In one high-profile instance in August, two men who allegedly walked around an Inglewood neighborhood with assault rifles were taken into custody the next day after one was shot with a sponge round at a Lake View Terrace intersection. The suspect was hit in the face and hospitalized, Evans said.
Meanwhile, the California Peace Officers Association lauded LAPD's decision to test these "less-lethal" launchers and 40 mm sponge rounds in a patrol setting.
"As long as an officer receives the proper training, it's great," said Mitch McCann, vice president of the association and the police chief of Simi Valley. "The more tools officers have at their disposal, I think the safer the community will be."