This month, instead of talking about a new product or how well a piece of equipment performs, I’m going to discuss a class of weapons—non-lethal weapons.
You can’t pick up a newspaper or watch the news these days without seeing a story about how the cops beat up or hurt someone, and once in a while (fortunately not too often) the story is about someone dying while in custody. Ask any chief or sheriff what keeps them awake at night, and odds are they’ll tell you three things: 1) one of their people getting hurt, 2) forcible arrests and 3) pursuit driving.
Now, think about that for a minute: officer injuries, forcible arrests and pursuit driving. Basically, we’re talking about a little understood correlation of modern policing: What gets you sued also gets you hurt. You get sued because you injure someone, most often during an arrest or with a motor vehicle. And, if you look at officers’ injuries and deaths, you’ll see it’s forcible arrests and motor vehicles causing the injuries and fatalities. If we could better manage those two things—use of force and vehicles—we’d all be a lot safer, and suffer less litigation.
Vehicles and firearms are topics in and of themselves. For now, I’ll discuss non-lethal use-of-force options during an arrest. That’s what you use the most, and they remain the most likely to get you hurt and/or sued.
There are dozens of non-lethal options out there, and probably hundreds of variations on each one. Generally, though, there are six basic options for controlling someone with non-lethal force/control: Your verbal/visual management of the scene, empty-hand control, restraints, aerosols, electronic control devices (ECDs) and impact weapons. The first two and the last are decidedly low tech (although very important, of course), so I’ll leave those for another discussion. Let’s look at restraints, aerosols and ECDs.
No matter what other non-lethal control options your department provides for you, you will always receive some means of restraining people. And make no mistake, restraints are technology, even if we don’t often think of them that way.
Typically, we carry handcuffs. Most of us even got training during the academy in how to use them, although many of us get update training way too infrequently. Handcuff training should include tactical use of cuffs, i.e., cuff then search, cuffing positions, etc.
Handcuffs are ubiquitous; everybody carries them. With a compliant suspect, they’re easy to use, and they do the job. However, improper or sloppy use of handcuffs, and sometimes failure to use them at all, has probably gotten more officers hurt and killed than any other commonly used law enforcement tool.
Think about the last time you rolled around on the ground with a bad guy, all sweaty and slippery, trying to put that second cuff on. You know what I’m talking about. The suspect is pretty casual and compliant, so you relax a little too much. Put them against the car, a quick pat down, pull one arm behind them and snap on one cuff. Then the fun begins, twisting and dancing, until you (and hopefully your partner, although most officers work alone nowadays) manage to take the suspect down. After a lot of wrestling, you manage to get the other arm back where you can put the second cuff on. You shove him into the backseat of your vehicle, and you and your partner take a few deep gulps of air to catch your breath. Suddenly you notice that the guy has managed to wriggle his butt through the cuffs, and get his hands in front of his body. So, you haul him back out and start all over again.
Sound familiar? So, what went wrong?
First of all, you relaxed! Never use a car-search position. Second, always cuff first, then search. Last, if at all possible, take steps to make sure the bad guy can’t slip his cuffs. Cuff with their palms facing out, and if at all possible, slip the cuffs under his belt so that one cuffed hand is above the belt and the other below. If you must cuff in front (something you should do only for a very good reason), cuff with the palms facing out, and consider moving their belt buckle around to the side or rear so that you can slip your cuffs through the belt in the front.
And remember, handcuffs are a force implement. Many lawsuits arise from handcuffing “injuries.” Put ’em on right, and remember to double-lock them.
Once upon a time, aerosol weapons were considered the greatest new thing since air conditioning. Of course, most of us have seen numerous people manage to fight through the spray. In all of the aerosol instructor classes I’ve taught, I’ve never had one person who couldn’t complete a dynamic weapon-retention scenario after being sprayed. If that’s the case in class, consider the likely result of spraying a determined, focused individual on the street.
That’s not to say spray is of no use, only that you should recognize its possible shortcomings. Will it give you a tactical advantage? Many times, yes. However, always remember that truly focused, determined, goal-oriented individuals—especially those who have been sprayed before—may very well fight right through it. Be prepared for failure of your spray to incapacitate, and never take an aerosol weapon to a knife, club or gun fight!
Use evasive maneuvering. In other words, spray and move laterally. Even if the bad guy can’t get his eyes open, if he gets a hand on you, he can still fight. And you’re likely to get contaminated in the process.
One more thing: A little bit of spray goes a long way. If you hit a bad guy with a good center-face hit, it should have whatever effect it’s going to have. Unloading a whole can on him will not really add to the incapacitation effect, but it will make cleanup and decontamination harder, and recovery longer. And, of course, the more you spray, the more likely you or your partners will suffer the effects as well.
Electronic Control Devices
There are a few different ECDs out there, but this article addresses use-of-force during an arrest, so I won’t discuss stun belts, etc. I’m talking about an ECD carried by an officer in the field. Although there are some other devices coming on-line, for most of us, that means a TASER.
About half of the departments in the U.S. have TASERs, and more and more are issuing them to street officers. If you’ve used one in the field, there’s a pretty good chance it did what you needed it to do. There are a couple of things to keep in mind about using a TASER, however.
First, no circuit means no incapacitation. It seems simple, but a lot of us forget it in the heat of the moment. If you get only a single probe into your target, it’s a lot like a bird sitting on a high power line—no effect. But, if that bird somehow touches a wing tip to another line, the circuit is completed.
How can you tell if you have a complete circuit? Listen to your TASER. It should be fairly quiet when it’s cycling. If it’s making a loud clacking sound, you don’t have a circuit, or at least not a good one. If that’s the case, don’t fool around. Reload and fire another cartridge.
If the bad guy is right on top of you and you have only one probe into him, shove the TASER into him in another part of his body and pull the trigger. The current will flow between the single probe and the front of the TASER, and you’ll have a circuit.
Remember: Drive-stuns are pain-compliance techniques, unless you have a live cartridge on. You can drive-stun, then move the TASER elsewhere on an offender’s body and drive-stun them again. Now the effect will be similar to the situation described above. You’ll have a circuit.
Beyond this technique, you should minimize the use of drive stuns. Although they’re very painful, they’re still pain compliance. If the bad guy’s feeling no pain, drive-stuns will just tick him off and leave a lot of burn marks that look real nasty in photographs.
There’s a lot more to say about TASER-like weapons, but that’s another article. For now, just remember:
• 50,000 volts means nothing in terms of incapacitation; it’s the amperage that incapacitates;
• Always turn the weapon off before loading or changing cartridges;
• Don’t fire the weapon if it’s wet. Aside from the possibility of damaging it, the moisture could cause the current to flow to your wet hand, and that’s bad;
• Don’t carry a live spare cartridge in your pocket unless it’s in a protective case. Static electricity could cause it to go off, and that can ruin your day;
• Don’t take a TASER to a knife, club or gun fight, unless you have one of your partners there with a firearm out and ready for use;
• You can grab someone who is being Tased without getting shocked yourself. In fact, you should; the 5-second “ride” is a window of opportunity to get cuffs on the bad guy. This is called “cuffing under power,” and it’s a good thing. Even though the “tasee” will look like they have stiffened all their muscles, forcing you to wait until the current stops to bend their arms, that’s not the case. Even though they can’t move, you can and should bend their arms and get them cuffed. Once the current stops, they’re free to continue resisting, and that usually means an additional ride;
• When you write up your report or talk to your friends (or a reporter) about your TASER, don’t refer to it as a “zapper” or say tasees are “riding the lightning.” These inaccurate and pejorative statements further the public’s misconceptions about this important tool; and
• If it’s been a couple of years since you went through training, get back for some re-training. Much has evolved in the ECD field, and most of it is stuff you need to know.
Remember, weapons are a two-edged sword. Every encounter with another person is an armed encounter because you carry weapons. Keep your training fresh. If your department doesn’t provide the training you need, seek it out on your own. You can never have too much training, especially in the use of force.
Beware of an over-reliance on technology. Your weapons are useful tools, but never forget they can fail, and probably eventually will. When that time comes, be ready to react with another control option. And remember: What gets you sued is also what gets you hurt.
Stay safe, and wear your vest.