Law enforcement can use less-than-lethal weapons when dealing with the public and apprehending suspects to prevent injuries or fatalities to the force and suspects. While less-than-lethal force is an essential part of the use of force continuum, even the most modern tools have limited effectiveness.
Can new technological developments help police officers do their jobs more efficiently when the use of less-than-lethal force is warranted? If you support blue lives, knowing the average American police officer’s less-than-lethal tools and weapons, what their effects and limitations are, and emerging technologies can help you understand how policing is becoming safer for officers and the public at large.
Why Less-than-Lethal Force Matters in Modern Policing
Less-than-lethal force refers to a range of weapons, tools, and chemical agents that police departments can deploy in the line of duty. They are integral elements of a police officer’s toolkit to apprehend suspects, conduct crowd control, and maintain order.
Less-than-lethal force weapons limit unnecessary injuries and deaths while keeping officers safe. They allow officers to use force to de-escalate a potentially violent situation without resorting to deadly weapons like firearms.
Although less-than-lethal weapons are sometimes referred to as “non-lethal,” this term is falling out of use due to the potential of such weapons causing deaths, accidental or otherwise. Like any other weapon, less-than-lethal force and the tools used to deploy it require extensive training and understanding of each tool’s capabilities.
Common Law Enforcement Less-than-Lethal Weapons
Police officers in the United States have several less-than-lethal options to deter aggression. These tools include electronic control devices, batons, and chemical agents.
Electronic Control Devices (ECDs)
An electronic control device is a hand-held weapon designed to incapacitate a target using electric shocks. One of the most well-known examples of ECDs used by police officers worldwide is the Taser. Law enforcement models allow an officer to hit a target from a distance of up to 30’.
According to the Department of Justice, federal agencies like the ATF and the U.S. Marshal Service adopted Tasers in 2006. These agencies were among the earliest to use Tasers as a less-than-lethal alternative to firearms. Since then, they have become commonly issued across police departments and other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States.
Standard stun guns and Tasers with their cartridges removed can also function as close-contact weapons, delivering electric shocks by pressing the prongs directly against the target’s body.
Pros of ECDs:
- Ranged less-than-lethal weapons that can function as a melee weapon
- Can subdue aggressive assailants quickly
- Different cartridges provide varying maximum ranges of engagement
Cons of ECDs:
- Both prongs must hit the target’s skin to deliver a shock
- Electrical shocks can seriously injure or kill individuals with pre-existing health conditions
The police baton is one of the oldest law enforcement tools, first used by early 19th-century officers. All law enforcement agencies issue batons to their officers, from municipal police departments to federal agencies like the FBI. Modern examples include the side-handle baton and the expandable baton.
The primary purpose of law enforcement less-than-lethal weapons like the police baton is to serve as a striking weapon. It is also a versatile tool that a trained police officer can use to block incoming strikes or perform armlocks more efficiently.
Pros of batons:
- Versatile tool that can be used to strike, block, and subdue
- Simple and easy to maintain, requires no batteries or ammunition
Cons of batons:
- Misuse or strikes to sensitive body parts (head, chest, spine) can be lethal
- Batons are close-contact weapons, limiting their reach
Many U.S. police departments use chemical agents as non-lethal crowd control weapons. Law enforcement officers typically use these agents when responding to protests, demonstrations, and other large groups with a high potential for violence.
Chemical agents in law enforcement range from simple smoke grenades for crowd dispersion to pain-inducing agents, such as mace, pepper spray (OC), or tear gas (CS, CN).
Pros of chemical agents:
- Available in numerous forms, from personal defensive sprays to large crowd control munitions
- At proper dosage, most chemical agents deter assailants immediately while causing few long-lasting effects
Cons of chemical agents:
- Effectiveness may be limited against targets with high pain tolerance or under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- May be lethal to individuals with specific pre-existing health conditions like heart issues or asthma
Less-than-lethal ammunition includes non-explosive handheld grenades and cartridges used in handguns, long guns, and launchers. They include rubber bullets, baton shells for shotguns and launchers, bean bag shotgun rounds, stinger grenades, flashbang grenades, and launched sponge grenades.
These munitions generally propel rubber, foam, or spongy synthetic materials at targets. Many of these munitions are designed to act or function like lethal equivalents while reducing harm to the target. For example, a stinger grenade resembles a small hand grenade but propels less-lethal small rubber projectiles instead of lethal shrapnel.
Pros of less-than-lethal ammunition:
- Effective ranged weapons that can disperse over wide areas for crowd control
- Projectiles deliver blunt force trauma, which is immediately effective for incapacitation
Cons of less-than-lethal ammunition:
- Misuse or firing such weapons too closely from the intended targets can cause severe injuries or death
- Individuals with high pain tolerance or under the influence of alcohol and drugs may not be readily incapacitated by these munitions
Emerging Technologies in Less-than-Lethal Force
New advancements in less-than-lethal technologies are being developed to address the limitations of existing tools and weapons in the police officer’s arsenal. These new solutions offer additional ways for law enforcement officers to project force and maintain order without resorting to lethal weapons.
Acoustic Immobilization Devices
An acoustic immobilization device (AID), also known as a sonic weapon, is an advanced system designed to use sonic waves to incapacitate an opponent. AIDs use high-powered sound waves to deter crowds and potential assailants from escalating violence, forcing them to disperse from the area.
Early AIDs have been in limited use by military and police forces worldwide. One of the most common examples is the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD). Although initially conceived for long-range communication, LRADs can be turned into crowd-control devices by projecting a powerful, unpleasant siren.
Although not yet in widespread use in the United States, more advanced AIDs are currently under development by the Department of Defense (DoD). These devices use infrasound waves, which are extremely low-frequency sound waves (20 hz or less). While they are inaudible, they can potentially cause pain and disorientation.
Directed-Energy Weapons (DEWs)
A directed-energy weapon (DEW) uses focused energy other than sound waves to damage or incapacitate a target without relying on a projectile. The most common forms of DEWs use laser beams, microwaves, and particle beams. While sound devices such as AIDs are a type of DEW, they are typically categorized separately.
One DEW is the Active Denial System (ADS), a microwave device developed for the U.S. military, sometimes called the heat ray. The ADS projects potent beams of 95 GHz microwaves at human targets, causing the skin's surface to heat up using similar principles as microwave ovens. These devices can be used for area denial, forcing individuals out of a designated zone by exposing them to heat pain.
ADS systems are designed to give the target the impression their skin is burning while causing minimal lasting damage. Exiting the area affected by the ADS is enough to dispel the device’s effects. Since the Penn State Human Effects Advisory Panel’s conclusion in 2008, police have been using the ADS as an effective crowd-control device with a low probability of lasting injury.
Kinetic Energy Non-Lethal Weapons (KENLWs)
A kinetic energy non-lethal weapon (KENLW) operates according to similar principles as standard firearms. Instead of bullets, KENLWs use different projectiles, spreading the kinetic energy over a wider area to promote incapacitation instead of penetrating and damaging organs.
Modern KENLWs include products such as the Alternative, which are attachments designed to fit on standard service pistols. These devices are a modern reimagining of bullet-trap rifle grenades used by military forces of the past.
Upon firing, the less-lethal projectile captures the bullet and the kinetic energy it generates, launching it off the attachment and propelling it toward an attacker. This projectile is large and spherical, eliminating the risk of penetrating and spreading the kinetic energy over a wider area. The result is a powerful blunt-force impact with no risk of penetration, making it a potent less-than-lethal option.
Why Police Officers Need More Advanced Less-than-Lethal Options
Developing new less-than-lethal technologies and solutions gives law enforcement officers multiple advantages. Below is a breakdown of how newer and more advanced less-than-lethal weapons can enhance policing, help preserve police officer lives, and reduce injury and casualties.
Giving peace officers more flexibility. Although the concept of the use-of-force continuum was developed in the early 2000s, confrontations with individuals are rarely linear.
Police officers must be prepared for the level of violence to increase suddenly and at any given moment. Consequently, having access to tools that let them de-escalate without resorting to lethal force helps them respond to situations more efficiently.
- Better less-lethal weapons give time and distance to officers: Many less-than-lethal weapons currently in police inventories are limited in range or effectiveness. Newer and more advanced less-than-lethal weapons can reach targets and maintain their effectiveness over longer distances. They help preserve police officer lives by reducing the number of unnecessary close-quarters engagements.
More less-lethal weapons fill use-of-force gaps: The traditional use-of-force continuum model recommends escalating from verbal commands and empty-hand techniques to less-lethal weapons if the situation warrants it.
Additional options between empty-hand control and LTL weapons, such as ECDs or chemical agents, provide law enforcement officers with different degrees of force. These extra options let them respond to situations with more precision and avoid applying excessive force.
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