Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Let's train police officers to use non-lethal force

I have never understood why our police force ends up killing so many people. I'm not saying these people are entirely innocent of wrong-doing, nor am I saying that the police are a bunch of out-of-control thugs.
But, as Andre Picard pointed out recently, about 40% of those shot to death by police are mentally ill (Sammy Yatim, Andrew Loku, etc, etc), and not in complete control of their actions and reactions. Of the rest, most have some control over their anti-social or dangerous actions, and a certain percentage are probably out-and-out career criminals who just don't care about the consequences of their actions or lifestyles.
Police officers dealing with these kinds of violent cases, are on a hiding to nothing. They are supposed to engage these misanthropes, while all the time trying to defuse the situation, only resorting to violence themselves when all else has failed and the risk of injury or death (either to the police officers or to other standers-by) appears imminent. It is a near impossible position to place someone in, and mistakes are likely in such charged and high-stress circumstances. In very few cases, though, is a lethal police response the correct one.
After every such death, studies are carried out and papers are written, almost all of which conclude that police officers need more training to deal with such situations. But surely a big part of the problem is the very fact that the officers are carrying a lethal weapon that they are told to use only in the most desperate of circumstances. Are there really no alternatives?
In the movies, the good guys (and often the bad guys too) regularly shoot with non-lethal tranquilizer guns. The victim is incapacitated almost immediately, but is not killed. Do the real-life police not have access to such a solution? Well, from what I can glean from the internet, apparently not. Tranquilizer guns or darts are used with animals, but they are not instantaneous, especially when the adrenaline is pumping. Then there is the added problem that the dosage used needs to be customized to the size and weight of the assailant (which is clearly not practicable in the circumstances of a live situation), and that reloading, if required, is slow. Some people may also have a fatal reaction to the kinds of tranquilizer drugs that are available.
So, what about tasers? Well, tasers are indeed used on a regular basis, probably more than we think, but tasers too have their drawbacks: they are very slow to reload, they require a good connection of both electrode barbs (something even a partial miss or some thick clothing might prevent), their range is limited to about 6 metres, some people might have a fatal reaction to the charge, etc, etc.
Well then, why can't police officers shoot, but not to kill? Apparently, shooting an assailant's gun or knife out of their hand is the stuff of movies and fiction, and even an experienced marksman cannot achieve such a feat reliably. But I see no reason why they need to aim for the chest or head, when a shoulder or leg would serve just as well (certainly in the case of a knife-wielder, and probably even with a gunman).
But surely there must be other non-lethal options? Well, there are. One website lists several, ranging from "bean bags" (sock-shaped pouches filled with lead, silicone or rubber pellets, fired from a specialized gun), blunt-impact projectiles (silicone- or foam-tipped plastic bullets, also fired from a specialized gun), "pepperballs" (round plastic balls filled with capsaicin powder, fired from a paintball-type gun), "The Alternative" (a metal attachment that fits onto a regular gun that effectively slows down the bullet, making it non-lethal), "The XREP" (a longer-range, more effective, wireless version of a taser), the "ML-12 Less-Lethal Launcher" (a specialized handgun that can fire a range of non-lethal ammunition, including bean-bags, rubber balls, pepper balls, etc), even the military-style "Active Denial System" (a kind of wide-range heat ray that causes instantaneous debilitating pain).
Yes, police officers need more training on asessing and defusing situations and in dealing with the mentally ill. And maybe the good old nightstick or billie club still has a place in a police officer's kit. But if, for these and other reasons, a gun altercation is unavoidable, then let's try shooting to main instead of shooting to kill. At least that would be a step in the right direction. And a serious consideration of some of the available non-lethal options mentioned above might also be a good thing. There is certainly no time like the present to act on this.

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