After years of dispute and study, the Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday gave approval for the city's police force to use hollow-point bullets, a controversial type of ammunition that expands on impact with its target.
The decision, which takes effect immediately, replaces solid-nosed bullets that Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and others in his department contend are more likely to pass through a suspect and ricochet, possibly striking innocent bystanders.
The commission, comprised of five civilians appointed by the mayor, reached its unanimous decision after reviewing the results of yearlong study conducted by the LAPD.
The report found that hollow-point ammunition reduces the incidence of "through-and-through" penetration without increasing fatalities.
By granting the department approval to use hollow-points in its .38-caliber revolvers and 9-millimeter pistols, the LAPD joins police agencies throughout the country that have switched to the new ammunition.
But the change to hollow-point ammo drew strong criticism Tuesday from various community and civil rights organizations, which have decried their use as inhumane.
"Anybody who has seen color photographs of the damage that hollow-points do to the body will understand why we object strenuously to their use," said Hugh Manes of the Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service, a group that provides attorneys for people who believe they have been subjected to police brutality.
"It tears up the body and causes unnecessary damage, often permanent impairment," Manes added. "A regular bullet would not have that consequence as often."
It was unclear whether civil rights organizations would take legal action to try to overturn the decision.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, agreed that the bullets jeopardize more lives and pointed out that they have been outlawed over the years by the United Nations and even the U.S. Army.
"They will stop more people, but suspects will have graver injuries and the bullets will kill more often," Ripston said. "Although we want our police to have the best tools available, we want them to apprehend suspects more often, not kill them."
Nonetheless, the report found that in 1987, when only solid-nosed bullets were used, a slightly higher percentage of people died after being shot by police officers than in 1989, when hollow-point bullets were tested.
The report also showed, however, that a substantially higher percentage of solid-nosed bullets passed through suspects, potentially risking innocent bystanders.
Police officials say the findings seem to knock down a widely held belief that hollow-points--which have a concave nose and expand to the size of a dime on impact--are more likely to tear up human organs than solid bullets.
"If that were true you would expect more people to die," said Lt. Gary A. Lee, who helped conduct the study. The report, he added, "basically took away the argument that hollow-points are more lethal."
Rank-and-file LAPD officers lauded the commission's ruling Tuesday. They pointed out that hollow-point ammunition is already used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as well as dozens of other police agencies in the Southland. The bullets are also used in Dallas, Chicago and San Diego, though not in New York City.
Some officers said they were particularly impressed with the "stopping power" of the hollow-point ammunition.
"They are long overdue and a much more effective bullet as far as stopping power goes--and that is what we want," said Sgt. John Colella of the LAPD's Hollenbeck Division, east of downtown Los Angeles.
"We need more firepower today because the people we are coming up against these days use fully automatic weapons and high-powered rifles," Colella added. "I really feel more comfortable with a 9-millimeter loaded with hollow-points."
Such comments, however, were downplayed by police brass, including Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker.
"The importance of using a hollow-point is that the bullet will not go all the way through a person and increase the possibility of an innocent bystander being hit as well," Kroeker said. "That is the main reason we are going to this new round."
In the past, Chief Gates has made vigorous pitches to the Police Commission for the hollow-point, but those requests had been derailed after community activists accused the department of "asking for a license to kill more blacks and Chicanos."
"We'd be very surprised if anyone tried to take court action to stop the adoption of this ammunition," said police spokesman Cmdr. William Booth.