The Michael Brown shooting has, once again, provoked rampant and uninformed speculation about “less than lethal” alternatives to stopping attackers. “Why didn’t the officer use a Taser?” “Why didn’t they shoot him with beanbags or rubber bullets?” Some have even suggested that chemical sprays of various kinds are a viable alternative to deadly force. I’ve recently covered the fallacy of “shooting to wound.” It may be useful to expose the fallacy of these other “options” . . .
All police officers know the decisions they are forced to make in seconds will be minutely parsed over months by people debating their actions from comfortable chairs in climate-controlled environs. They know too that the media, advocates for criminals, and anti-gun crusaders will demonize them regardless of the law and the facts.
Anyone carrying a concealed weapon or forced to use deadly force to save their lives or the lives of others should understand they’ll be scrutinized no less, and no more fairly, than any police officer.
To better understand the issues of the Brown case and of the use of force in general, consider this publication about the law enforcement use-of-force continuum from the National Institute of Justice. Keep in mind that the exact wording of this example is not universally used by police agencies, but it generally represents police thinking and practice.
“Officer Presence — No force is used. Considered the bestway to resolve a situation.
The mere presence of a law enforcement officer works to deter crime or diffuse a situation.
Officers’ attitudes are professional and nonthreatening.
Verbalization — Force is not-physical.
Officers issue calm, nonthreatening commands, such as “Let me see your identification and registration.”
Officers may increase their volume and shorten commands in an attempt to gain compliance. Short commands might include “Stop,” or “Don’t move.”
Empty-Hand Control — Officers use bodily force to gain control of a situation.
Soft technique. Officers use grabs, holds and joint locks to restrain an individual.
Hard technique. Officers use punches and kicks to restrain an individual.
Less-Lethal Methods — Officers use less-lethal technologies to gain control of a situation.
Blunt impact. Officers may use a baton or projectile to immobilize a combative person.
Officers may use chemical sprays or projectiles embedded with chemicals to restrain an individual (e.g., pepper spray).
Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs). Officers may use CEDs to immobilize an individual. CEDs discharge a high-voltage, low-amperage jolt of electricity at a distance.
Lethal Force — Officers use lethal weapons to gain control of a situation. Should only be used if a suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or another individual.
Officers use deadly weapons such as firearms to stop an individual’s actions.”
In any situation, an officer may find it necessary to jump from the lowest to the highest rung–or anywhere in between–in an instant. What many critics of police use of force, and of armed citizen’s use of force, don’t understand or choose to ignore is that all of these options are not always available–or rational–and particularly not for armed citizens.
It’s the rare citizen who carries a concealed handgun, as well as a baton, chemical spray and a Taser. Armed citizens are not obligated to wade into situations that might require the subtle application of the use-of-force continuum and the many potential techniques and weapons. A slight woman may well be unable to apply any kind of empty-hand technique against a larger male attacker, and not a few men are similarly at a disadvantage.
Even a police officer, when alone, faced with a drug-affected, 300 pound, 6’4” attacker that opens the altercation with stunning and damaging blows to the officer’s face, may find their options escalating to the top of the continuum in seconds. The best available information suggests that was the case for Officer Darren Wilson.
Another vital factor is what I’ve come to call the SPOIT rule. The “Sober Police Officer In Training” rule. The SPOIT rule states that any striking or restraining technique, or the application of virtually any less lethal device will tend to work splendidly on sober police officers undergoing training in clean, dry, well-lit gymnasiums or dojos.
However, the same techniques or technologies are highly likely to unexpectedly and spectacularly fail in the real world when applied against people that are drunk, drugged, enraged, desperate to escape, don’t care how much pain they have to take, or are just so mean, stupid or stubborn they’ll endure just about anything to get to whomever they’ve decided they want to hurt.
The same rule applies to armed citizens facing the same kinds of threats.
Here, briefly, is why “less lethal” means were probably unavailable to Officer Darren Wilson, why they would probably have been ineffective, and why they are so often unavailable and/or ineffective to the armed citizen.
Beanbags or Rubber Bullets: Rubber bullets are essentially 12 gauge slugs made of various densities of rubber or polymer. They are designed to be fired by a 12-gauge shotgun.
Rubber bullets have significant problems in police use. They are commonly used only for crowd control, but even so, the optics of police firing shotguns directly at crowds are terrible. Precise targeting is absolutely vital to avoid seriously wounding or killing people, but such projectiles have limited range and mediocre accuracy at best.
Beanbag rounds are small fabric bags filled with a medium that will hopefully transfer impact force to the body without excessive damage. They are also commonly fired from a 12-gauge shotgun.
Beanbag rounds have even greater range and accuracy limitations than rubber bullets. As the range increases, any effect on the target greatly decreases, but shooting too closely can actually kill people. However, neither type of projectile is a reliable man-stopper.
No police officer can afford to have a shotgun loaded with “less-lethal” ammunition. When engaged in a hot situation, there is no time to unload the live ammunition to make a switch with “less-lethal” rounds. Smart police officers employ these munitions with the backup of other officers armed with firearms in case the less-lethal methods fail and things escalate.
Perhaps the best example of the lack of effectiveness of such things is a 1997 standoff between Seattle Police and a man armed with a Katana. The standoff lasted ten hours, and the man was hit multiple times by less-lethal rounds, many of which appeared to hurt him, but never did they disarm him or force him to surrender. He was finally stopped by police overwhelming him with fire hoses and pinning him with an extension ladder and poles. At all times, he was covered by officers with firearms.
Obviously, these options aren’t available to the armed citizen.
Chemical Sprays: Pepper sprays, even the stronger varieties available to the police, are iffy performers. They tend to work well under SPOIT conditions, but otherwise, not so much. Police officers know that all too often they leave everyone–officer and bad guy alike–eye-watering, sniffling and sneezing, but otherwise still in the fight. They are seriously range limited, their stream may be diverted by nothing fancier than a hand–I’ve seen just that–and some people are virtually immune to the effects.
These sprays are often marketed as an effective alternative to firearms. Anyone buying that spin is actually betting lives, including theirs, on the manufacturer’s good intentions. Imagine how well pepper spray would have worked on an enraged, charging Michael Brown, desperate to escape after committing a strong-armed robbery. Imagine how well it would work on a rapist determined to have his way.
TASERs: TASERs certainly have their applications, but as with beanbags, officers tend to employ Tasers in situations where backup officers with firearms are available in case the Taser doesn’t work. Tasers impart a high-voltage, low-amperage electric shock by means of two barbs connected to wires. A charge fires the barbs, and unless both barbs embed solidly in the skin, there will be no charge imparted.
TASERs are seriously range-limited, and are best fired only at close, stationary targets with exposed skin or only light clothing. Thick clothing can easily defeat taser barbs. TASERs also have an unenviable record of killing people. A Google search will reveal many cases of Tasers having little or no effect. Even in SPOIT conditions, some police officers are minimally affected.
A charging, drug-affected 6’4” 300 pound attacker would present a poor target for a TASER, and a miss, a lack of complete barb penetration or conduction, or a lack of immediate effect, would leave an officer with insufficient time to employ their firearm in a way that could possibly stop the attacker before they could get their hands on the officer.
Even if an armed citizen were carrying a TASER, it’s unlikely they’d be carrying it where it could be immediately employed in the face of an aggressive charge, and if a TASER were their only weapon, and it failed, the results would be tragic when the attacker processed the failed taser attempt.
“Less-than-lethal” weapons have their place, but that place is limited in many ways. If the probable circumstances in the Michael Brown case are proved true, Officer Wilson, having been attacked and injured by Brown was, from that moment, trying to arrest a man that just committed a violent felony by attacking a police officer, even if Wilson was unaware of Brown’s robbery. The moment Brown charged Wilson, any obligation to use less-lethal force vanished and Wilson had no choice.
The same would be true for any similarly-attacked citizen.