When the Los Angeles Police Department sought to arm officers with hollow-point bullets in 1980 it triggered a storm of controversy that ultimately killed the proposal. But the Police Commission has quietly approved the use of the ammunition without hearing any dissent.
The commission authorized the use of the ammunition on a one-year trial basis at its May 31 meeting. The vote was unanimous.
LAPD officials maintain that the hollow-point bullet--used by numerous law enforcement agencies throughout the country--is more effective in knocking down suspects and less likely to pass through its target and ricochet.
"It's bringing us in line with other police departments using a bullet that has less penetrating power and more stopping power," Police Cmdr. William Booth said Saturday.
Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, insist that the policy change is dangerous and will jeopardize more lives. Critics said they would have challenged the move if they had known in advance about the vote.
"The ACLU is shellshocked over this decision," said Joel Maliniak, the ACLU'S spokesman. "The reason police generally favor them (the bullets) is that they have additional stopping power. What that means in shorthand is they have additional killing power."
The hollow-point bullet has a concave tip unlike the conventional round-nosed bullet. When the hollow-point bullet strikes, it expands to the size of a dime, which increases the possibility of it lodging in its target. It also delivers a greater punch to fleeing suspects, making it less likely that officers will need to fire several more shots to disarm them, Booth said.
Critics contend the bullet is deadlier because it poses a greater likelihood of tearing up a person's organs. They note that "dumdums," which belong to the same family of bullets, were outlawed for use in warfare over the decades by the Hague Convention, the Geneva Convention and United Nations.
Booth said the commission made its decision after receiving test results of the hollow-point bullet's long-term use and hearing about the experiences of other police departments. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as well as dozens of law enforcement agencies in the Southland use the hollow-point bullets. The bullets are also used in such big cities as Chicago, Dallas and San Diego, though not in New York.
In the past, Booth said, "a great deal of opposition was based on skepticism and a lack of knowledge. It escapes me how anybody could be upset."
When told of the ACLU's continued concern, Booth responded: "ACLU, eat your heart out."
The new policy took effect immediately. But until the LAPD can order bullets and deplete their current ammunition stockpile, officers who do not want to wait can purchase the bullets at retail outlets. The bullets will be used for the department's .38-caliber revolvers and 9 mm pistols.
The LAPD's rank and file have advocated making the ammunition switch for well over a decade. But in the mid-1970s, then-Police Chief Ed Davis opposed the bullet, saying it was a "more destructive bullet" that "makes big holes in people."
In 1980, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates made a vigorous pitch to the Police Commission for the hollow-point bullet. But the chief was overwhelmed by opposition from community activists, who accused the department of "asking for a license to kill more blacks and Chicanos."
The commission turned to Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi, then chief medical examiner-coroner, to investigate the opposing sides' claims. The LAPD's effort evaporated after Noguchi issued his report. He concluded that the hollow point did not necessarily have more "stopping power" but did cause more tissue damage.