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Less-Lethal Options, Part 4

When SWAT is used in a less-lethal role during a civil disturbance, they should be to the rear of the skirmish line where they have an “overview” of what is occurring and are available to move into position when needed. The SWAT team’s primary mission during such a response may be to deploy chemical agents and employ lesslethal munitions. An additional responsibility for SWAT during civil unrest is to protect those on the line by providing a lethal force component. SWAT should not get involved in the online arrests or skirmishes.

Care, Custody and Control

When less-lethal technology is deployed to apprehend a suspect / subject, there are physiological effects that will occur. These need to be recognized by on-scene personnel. For example, the application of a kinetic energy baton round has the ability to break bones and will cause visible contusions / bruises when a direct strike occurs. The deployment of chemical agents, whether launchable SWAT munitions or OC deployed from a personally assigned pepper spray canister, will present indicators of exposure.

These indicators may be in the form of lacrimation, complaints of “burning” eyes and skin, etc. Because we are trained, we know that some of these indicators, such as complaints of burning skin, will subside. Once we decontaminate the suspect / subject like we are trained, the physiological and psychological factors will diminish. What we don’t know is the subject’s medical history, which is why we take precautions to ensure they are assessed by medical personnel.

Policy must be established for assessment by fire-rescue or a hospital, dependent on the technology utilized to assess any injuries or exposures to chemical agents. Once a suspect or subject is in agency custody, the agency is required to maintain custody and control over them and to care for them. We are required to provide them first aid and followup medical assessment if it appears to be needed.

Some agencies require medical clearance for subjects who have been exposed to a TASER® or pepper spray / chemical agents. There are past instances of in-custody death which are usually beyond the agency’s control, but which arose from unknown medical conditions, such as cocaine psychosis.

Documentation and Event Reports

As part of agency policy, there must be a reporting mechanism that documents the usage of less-lethal technologies. This information must be documented in the incident report and should be supplemented by a specific form for the application of the less-lethal force.

Whether the agency terms it a “Subject Control Report” or “Use of Force Report,” this form specifically identifies the technology used, the serial number of the weapon (if applicable), the cartridge (TASER), what the subject was doing, why the force was applied, the resulting injuries (if any) and to whom, etc. The form is an abbreviation of what is documented in the main incident reports.

Role of the PIO

Your agency’s Public Information Officer (PIO) and, through this person, your community must be educated in less-lethal options. The PIO should, in fact, receive training in less-lethal options. He must know what he is talking about, and it is best if this knowledge is firsthand. If a PIO inadvertently misstates the facts, it is too late for your agency to request a follow-up interview to make a correction to a media release.

Imagine the PIO stating that the SWAT team shot the suspect with a shotgun, when the suspect was actually shot with less-lethal munitions fired from a shotgun. Depending on the circumstances, this statement may inflame an already tenuous situation. When missteps occur, SWAT command and trainers are the only ones to blame. We must ensure that the PIO is not providing erroneous information in haste to satisfy the media’s usual frenzy for information.

Situations have occurred in which vague information was given to the media, and the agency was painted in an untruthful light. When the agency tried to clarify what occurred, the media was nowhere to be found, nor did they print a retraction or splash the truthful incident on the front page for days as they did originally. When the investigation was over, the agency received a sidebar in the local section clearing its name. We have all heard that perception is reality; we need reality to be reality, and the truth to be the truth!

In technical and tactical situations, PIOs must be educated. They are not the experts, but they must consult those who are. If the PIO is on scene and the incident is evolving, he must limit the release of information to that which immediately affects public safety (i.e., SWAT standoff; evacuations; deadly force situation; X, Y and Z streets are closed, etc.). Once the event has come to a resolution, SWAT command staff can brief at that time.

In the realm of newly acquired less-lethal technology, most importantly and simply put, we must educate them. At times, law enforcement is afraid of perception. Sometimes we can control it and quell it by providing the facts. Other times we can’t, because not all the facts are readily available. If we remain silent during a critical incident, there may be allegations that we are “covering up” the facts.

Other Experts

We are better off using an educated PIO, agency Subject Matter Expert (SME) (i.e., agency trainer / SWAT trainer, local medical examiner / coroner) to provide information about the technology that was used, how it works, why it was used and what it does. We cannot hide from the fact that there may be an in-custody death as a result of less-lethal force that is not a direct result of that use of force.

We must have a working relationship with the medical examiner and educate him on the technology that was employed, which may or may not correlate to the death itself. The fact that an ECD was employed and a death resulted is not an effect of the ECD but cocaine psychosis. It is important for the community to hear this from a third party, or an SME.

It is necessary to keep the community informed. This can be done proactively before deployment, or after when the community is, as a whole, questioning the application of force. This does not mean organizing a media campaign every time force is used, but done as, or if, needed.

We must always be cautious when releasing information; we do not want to allow tactics to be developed to counter the effectiveness of the technology. Education can occur in a myriad of ways: schedule a press conference with your PIO and SMEs, have your community relations officer educate the public at homeowners meetings, etc. The main emphasis of these sessions is to convey how the technology is intended to save lives!

The Lethal Option

As a SWAT commander or team leader, it is important to know that the mere presence of less-lethal technology does not preclude the use of immediate deadly force. We are all provided a significant amount of training to deal with a myriad of situations and, therefore, endeavor to resolve them all peacefully. Tactical operators must always know they are supported by both agency and team command. They should never feel that they work in an environment where they will be second-guessed because a less-lethal option failed or was not deployed.

SWAT operators are highly motivated, trained and decisive. Therefore, they react quickly and at times may be criticized for not giving the suspect more “wiggle room.” Your agency heads must be educated about your equipment capabilities, limitations, and needs to operate on scene autonomously of those with non-SWAT / tactical experience, as this is a hindrance to carrying out the tactical operation. Command must be informed, but not making tactical decisions. The situation does, and always will, dictate the appropriate level of force the officer or deputy will use.

Less-lethal options / technologies have saved lives and will continue to do so, provided that tactical officers are properly trained and administrators are educated and think with an open mind. Technology will evolve to the benefit of all. We must evolve with applicable technology to be a success, as this profession has done for centuries. Less-lethal options are a lifesaving, not a life-taking, technology!

Lieutenant Darin D. Dowe is a 22-year veteran of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fla., a veteran SWAT operator, tactical WMD program coordinator, a SWAT instructor in multiple disciplines and a former sniper. He is a frequent contributor to Tactical Response and LAW & ORDER magazine. Dowe can be reached via e-mail at

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2010

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