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Nonlethal or Less-Lethal: Does it matter?

The controversy simmers, and it is not a new one.

I remember serious discussions at LAPD over 25 years ago about the terminology. Should we call them nonlethal? Less lethal? Less-than-lethal? Just simply suspect-control devices? How about reduced-lethality weapons?

Some people think that "less-lethal" was a term coined by the beanbag-shotgun industry. Or should I say, "the impact projectile industry"? But the terminology controversy has been around longer than that.

How about those "Conducted Energy Devices" (CED)? Oops, I mean "Electronic Control Weapons" (ECW). Uh, er . . . I really mean "Conducted Energy Weapons." Whatever you do, don't call them TASERs, right?

Confusion reigns.

Some argue that using the term "nonlethal" (or its near relative, "nondeadly") creates a problem in court in front of a jury. I'm still waiting to hear about a specific case. And perhaps readers will respond with one or more, and contribute to the debate.

What makes sense to me is that the question is whether a tool or tactic, when used in the normal manner, is designed and intended to inflict death or serious bodily harm, or whether it is designed and intended to bring a resisting suspect under control without inflicting death or serious bodily injury.

The military gets it.

Department of Defense policy has long defined non-lethal weapons as "Weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or material, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment."

You can look it up here.

On September 6, 2005, the State of California, Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (P.O.S.T.) issued a letter concerning its development of a DVD training course on "Projectile and Electronic Weapons." The following paragraph is an excerpt from that letter, and provides another perspective:


    "The project was originally to be called 'Less-Lethal Force Options.' It was unanimously decided [at a committee meeting] that the term "less-lethal" would not be used by P.O.S.T. as a term to describe a group of force options currently being used by California law enforcement officers. The simple description of the law enforcement tool would more accurately describe the weapon instead of predetermining the level of force of the force option. This allows the determination of the level of force to be based on the manner in which the force option is used. The more generic term of 'projectile or electronic' force options leaves P.O.S.T. out of the often controversial issue of whether a weapon is 'less lethal or less than lethal' that individual weapons manufacturers may claim."

Well, even if you generically name each class of device "electronic weapons," "projectile weapons," "spray weapons," "impact weapons," etc., what are you going to call the entire class of weapons that are designed to reduce deaths and injuries compared to the use of deadly force devices?

I'll stick with "nonlethal weapons" until there is a persuasive reason to call them something else.

A car is an automobile, and also a jalopy.

No matter the name, if you know how to drive it, you'll get where you're going.

And with nonlethal weapons (or whatever you, your agency, and your attorney chooses to call them), when properly used you will see a tremendous decrease in injuries to officers and suspects, reduced personnel complaints, reduced liability in lawsuits, and an improved public image for your law enforcement agency.

So how do we use these tools to do all that?

Next month, we'll take a look.

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