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Police Dropping 'Nonlethal' Beanbags as Too Dangerous

Safety: The devices kill and maim, officers say. Huntington Beach is suing a manufacturer.

June 03, 2002|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly a decade after small, square beanbags fired from shotguns emerged as the "nonlethal" ammunition of choice, police departments nationwide are abandoning them after finding that they can be dangerously inaccurate and deadlier than manufacturers claimed.

The devices, the size of tea bags and made of tough fabric filled with lead shot, are supposed to bounce off their targets, allowing police officers to stop a potentially dangerous person without causing major injuries. But officials cite examples of beanbags penetrating deep into the body, causing serious internal injuries.

Emergency room doctors in Los Angeles last year warned hospitals across the country about the dangers of police beanbags. And Los Angeles police, after extensive tests prompted by the death of a mentally ill man hit by a bag, concluded that the rounds frequently failed to work as designed.

In what is shaping up as a legal test case for nonlethal weapons, Huntington Beach is suing the country's largest beanbag manufacturer, claiming that the company failed to properly warn police about the dangers of the rounds. The suit stems from an incident in which officers nearly killed a suspect with beanbags that ripped deep into the man's chest.

The problems underscore the continued difficulty police agencies face in finding weapons that can stop people without killing them.

Beanbags and plastic bullets have killed 12 people in the United States and Canada, according to surveys by law enforcement weapons experts who track cases as far back as the 1970s. Dozens more people have suffered injuries ranging from ruptured eyeballs and damaged spleens to broken bones.

Federal testing and industry standards exist for police bullets, but no standards exist in the world of nonlethal weapons. A project launched by the federal government 10 years ago to develop safety standards has yet to yield any.

"There are some [weapons] out there that are clearly not as less-than-lethal as they claim," said David Boyd, a director with the National Institute of Justice, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. "What we lack right now is an objective way of telling which ones they are."

Beanbag manufacturers defend the accuracy and safety record of their products, saying the ammunitions should only bruise or graze a target when police officers use them correctly. They maintain that many of the deaths and severe injuries have been caused when officers fire from too close or aim for sensitive areas.

"Beanbags, if used appropriately, are very effective," said Michael Keith, president of MK Ballistic Systems. "There are probably several thousand lives in this country that have been saved as a result of the beanbags."

Capt. Sid Heal isn't used to missing a target, but the Los Angeles County sheriff's marksman watched helplessly one recent morning as he fired a shotgun filled with beanbags.

The first beanbag fell well short of its mark. A second missed the center of the target by a foot.

"There you go," he said. "Nobody can tell what they'll do. They're like a leaf in the wind."

Heal has squirted sticky foam at Marines in Somalia and zapped sheriff's deputies with electric Tasers at home. He has blasted stun grenades into buildings and pumped gelatin blocks full of plastic bullets.

As police experiment with ways to knock people down without hurting them, arms makers have flooded the market with weapons they say are less likely to be lethal. Heal has tried virtually all of them.

At the range, he strode up to a row of paper targets hanging 75 feet away. Inspecting his target, he pointed to narrow holes that beanbags had torn in the paper, a sign that the rounds had not worked properly.

Beanbags are designed to unfurl when fired, slapping a suspect with their open face. But Heal and other ballistics experts have discovered that the rounds often strike on an edge or while still curled up, turning them into sometimes deadly projectiles.

'Fail Catastrophically'

"When they fail, they fail catastrophically," Heal said. "We're in the blunderbuss age of less-lethal weapons."

The concern over safety is one reason the square beanbags are falling out of favor. Last year, Defense Technologies, the country's largest maker of beanbags, sold them to 288 agencies, down from 604 the year before.

Just a few years ago, beanbags were the most popular of all nonlethal ammunition, winning praise from civil rights advocates as a humane way of scattering unruly crowds and restraining violent or suicidal suspects.

In Los Angeles and other big cities, police credited beanbags with helping reduce officer-involved shootings by 50% in the last five years. LAPD officers used beanbags 68 times last year, according to police reports.

At Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, doctors have had a very different experience.

On the 13th floor, behind clanging steel doors and armed guards, lies a bleak ward devoted to treating jail inmates and those injured while being arrested.

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