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Everything You Need to Know About Less-lethal Options, Part 1

Written by Darin Dowe

Less-lethal options and technologies for law enforcement can be traced back to when the baton was the primary tool for the application of both less-lethal and deadly force. When the firearm was placed on the officers’ belt, the baton became a secondary, alternative weapon. For more than 250 years, the baton was the most widespread and noticeable less-lethal option used by American law enforcement.

Whether a less-lethal weapon (weapon other than firearm) is utilized by a tactical operator or patrol officer, it is defined as a weapon that is not designed to fundamentally cause death or great bodily harm. The definition does not preclude the unintentional death by application of a less-lethal technology. On the other hand, the term “non-lethal” clearly infers that the result will not result in death. This fact must not be ignored and must instead be managed by policy and training. In the past decade or so, the term “less-lethal” has been regularly used and become synonymous with lives being saved.

The military and law enforcement have used a well-known less-lethal technology for decades: chemical agents. This tool was widely used in the 1960s to quell civil unrest. It was subsequently adopted by SWAT for tactical applications. The only difference was the deployment tactics and technology, not the agent itself (CN, CS and OC).

The riot control agent, once adopted by SWAT and modified (launchable, non-pyrotechnic), became a regularly used SWAT less-lethal technology. This was and—for some agencies—still is the only less-lethal technology they utilize. We cannot hang our hat on the term “less-lethal” but hang our hat on the fact that technology has been used with the desired effect of gaining submission without permanent injury and / or lasting physiological effects.

As SWAT teams became staples of law enforcement agencies, companies sensed the demand for special weapons and equipment and responded. This is true to this day, as the market is now flush with both patrol and tactical less-lethal technology.

Agencies have made a significant investment in SWAT, and in return, there is an expected result. We achieve this result by member selection, training and application of specialized technology. Less lethal is no exception. With the widespread adoption of less-lethal technologies by law enforcement as a whole, SWAT has more options to meet the complexities of the varying tactical mission. We go to our tactical tool box and mate the special, less-lethal tools (chemical munitions, specialty impact munitions, TASERs) with special tactics. As a result, we save lives.

This marriage does not happen in a vacuum. Tactical teams have uniquely different and expanded requirements than patrol. These differences must be clearly understood by your agency when implementing and maintaining a SWAT less-lethal program. As the team commander, team leader, team trainer or SWAT team operator acquiring the technology, a number of points should be considered.

Determine the Need for Less-Lethal

SWAT teams are the tip of the spear and are required to resolve critical incidents that exceed the capabilities and scope of patrol. With these responsibilities comes the need for specialized equipment. Every team must have and be able to deploy less-lethal technology when appropriate. If the only responses to a critical incident are verbal negotiations and an AR-15 with nothing in between, the SWAT team command has failed both the agency and the community it serves.

If you have served on a SWAT team, you know how many lives are saved by committed operators, tactics and equipment. Many times, the mere presence of a SWAT team and its equipment (an operator with a 40mm launcher and/or an armored vehicle driving into the targets front yard) becomes a catalyst for a surrender and apprehension without injury.

It is incumbent upon team command or a designee to determine what is the most current and appropriate technologies for the team. With a reliance on SWAT, a variety of needs exist: launchable and hand-deployable chemical agents, kinetic energy / impact munitions, and electronic control devices (TASER), etc. For some agencies, a street encounter with patrol may become an open air standoff, resulting in a SWAT response. If patrol had an ECD, the incident may have been resolved. But this doesn’t matter. SWAT must be prepared to respond and resolve a variety of situations.

When SWAT is requested to respond to a scene, multiple less-lethal options must exist. For example, launchable chemical agents may not be an option when the suspect emerges from the structure and is out of range of an ECD, but a kinetic energy (impact munition) round, with an effective range of 100 yards would be an option.

In the past, SWAT teams would be called to the scene of a subject barricaded with a knife, and negotiations would commence. If negotiations failed, the only less-lethal options that were available were hand-deployed and launchable chemical agents. If the suspect did not submit or was not dislodged from the structure, an entry would be required. In many cases, SWAT teams would be confronted with a suspect armed with an impact weapon (knife, baseball bat) and deadly force would be utilized in defense of the entry element and / or hostage.

In the past, many law enforcement encounters that could have been resolved with a less-lethal technology resulted in the use of deadly force. Deadly force during these encounters was appropriate at that time, absent the availability of less-lethal options. Less-lethal, intermediate force options are virtually a requirement. If a team does not have any less-lethal technology, clearly a gap exists. Once the need and gap are identified, the research can begin. For a SWAT team, more than one option is required.

Technology that allows the team put distance between the operator / element and the problem (subject / suspect) is mandatory. Each option should be evaluated for its applicability to the variety of situations SWAT will face. A suspect in structure may not be seen but need to be dislodged.

This need would equate to a chemical agent deployment. A suicidal suspect emerging from a residence with a knife would equate to a TASER or impact munitions deployment. No one technology is a “fix all,” nor will it be effective absent appropriate situational / tactical training.

The SWAT staff proposing the adoption or addition of less-lethal technology must establish realistic parameters. These parameters must identify the team’s need / gap and how the specific less-lethal technology will be used. Conceptually, our needs are the same as patrol, which is to have an intermediate force option. We desire to increase officer and public safety, decrease officer, public and suspect injury, reduce liability and, most important, save lives!

In some cases, agency administrators see SWAT teams as being notorious for wanting the newest piece of equipment, when similar technology exists in their inventory. This obstacle is overcome by identifying what the new technology will provide to the team and the agency that the current technology does not.

Ask yourself if it is going to be easy when you approach your sheriff, chief, agency head, city or county commission and you have not clearly identified the need. What will your response be when asked about the technology currently in your inventory? More justification will be required. Use past SWAT incidents and other SWAT teams’ incidents as examples. Articulate how the new technology, if available at the time, could have altered the outcome. SWAT trainers and command staff should be constantly researching new and emerging technology, be current on deadly force and less-lethal force situations nationwide.

Lieutenant Darin D. Dowe is a 21-year veteran of the Broward County, FL Sheriff’s Office, a veteran SWAT operator, former sniper, tactical WMD coordinator, tactical electronics team leader and SWAT quartermaster. Dowe is a SWAT instructor and holds a Bachelor of Public Administration degree and an Associate of Arts degree in political science. He can be reached at darin_dowe@sheriff.org.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2009

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