In controlling disturbances and clearing the streets at L.A. Fiesta Broadway earlier this month, Los Angeles police commanders were determined to minimize direct contact with the crowd and avoid shedding blood in a situation where many families with young children were present.
So they turned to their array of “less lethal” weapons, firing foam-rubber projectiles and beanbags, and using their batons sparingly.
“We are trying to give our officers a means to defend themselves without injuring people,” the officer in charge at the scene, Lt. Michael R. Hillmann, said later. “We have had five events with the use of the rubber projectiles since the (1992) riot, without any serious injury so far.”
At Fiesta Broadway, Hillmann said, “I told my officers to be very discriminating with the use of the rubber projectiles to avoid women and children. And over the next 30 to 40 minutes, before the dispersal was complete, we fired a total of only 32 37-millimeter foam-rubber rounds and three beanbag projectiles. We were shooting the rubber projectiles in front of the crowd, and only the beanbags at specific individuals.”
At one time, officers relied primarily on tear gas and batons to disperse unruly crowds. Today, the growing array of less lethal weapons gives law enforcement a variety of options.
The Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department buy most of these weapons from Defense Technologies, a Wyoming firm that is the largest producer of such equipment in the United States. Its chief executive officer, Robert Oliver, prefers to call the rubber projectiles, beanbags, pepper spray and tear gas that make up the heart of the present arsenal “totally non-lethal.”
“These products are designed to be used by a completely trained special response team, and their purpose is to bring rioting people under control without any serious damage to those people,” Oliver said.
“Equally important, it allows the police officers to remain at a distance where they too are not in danger of being seriously hurt. When you get to the level of batons, by contrast, you risk serious injuries to both sides.”
Sheriff’s Capt. Dan Burt, chief spokesman for the department, takes exception to Oliver’s assertion that the new weapons should be called “non-lethal.” He prefers the term “less lethal.”
“All of these things will kill you if the situation is right,” Burt said. “Where something is fired with an explosive charge, depending on where it impacts, such as the heart or the temple, it could strike with a blunt force that could cause death.”
But, he said, with pepper spray, which is not fired with a charge but is set off by hand, “I’m not aware of any case where it was used and caused death in and of itself.”
Pepper spray is used against specific individuals, not in crowd-control situations where its temporarily incapacitating capabilities could actually impede crowd dispersal.
The American Civil Liberties Union has cited a few cases in which people with physical weaknesses or diseases died after being pepper-sprayed and has questioned whether it should be used without further study. The ACLU has suggested that, if it is used, paramedics be on hand.
But Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the organization has not taken a stand against use of rubber projectiles.
“We’re looking at their use and gathering statistics,” Ripston said last week. “We haven’t amassed a lot of situations to make a judgment yet.”
But, she added, she feels in principle that “you can’t take everything away from the police.”
The ACLU has been a vehement critic of such police tactics as chokeholds and hogtying individuals, in part because of a history of fatalities in such cases.
Oliver said the rubber projectiles that his firm produces for police work should not be called rubber bullets, which are used by Israeli forces to confront crowds in the occupied West Bank.
“Our products do not in any way, shape or form resemble rubber bullets,” he said. “Rubber bullets can be as lethal as lead bullets, and what we are producing and the LAPD is using is an entirely different line . . . predominantly made of foam rubber and limited to a specific hardness.”
The weapons that have come into use in civil policing have little to do with much more exotic, less lethal alternatives now under secret development and experimentation by the U.S. military.
There are reportedly substances that can envelop targets in a “glue” or “sticky foam” that will attach them to whatever they touch. And super-lubricants that make roads or bridges so slippery that they cannot be used by motor vehicles are also the subject of experimentation.
Another possibility is high-intensity strobe lights, emitted at human brain wave frequency, that could cause long-term dizziness and nausea.
These are probably more likely to be used in future wars than in controlling civil disturbances or rioting prisoners, although, because they have not been released for civilian police review, their precise eventual applications are speculative.
The rules for the use of the contemporary less lethal arsenal are quite precise, and training of the comparatively few officers designated to use such weapons has been extensive.
Hillmann emphasized that the crowd-control capabilities of rubber projectiles are as much psychological as physical.
At Fiesta Broadway, he said, no announcement was made that such weapons would be employed after he told the crowd on a loudspeaker that he was declaring an unlawful assembly and warning it to disperse.
Then, he said, the rounds of foam rubber were fired at an angle to hit 10 to 15 feet in front of the crowd. Bouncing up to sting people’s feet and legs, the goal was to leave them in fear that they were being subjected to a more deadly form of pellet, he said, and it was instrumental in getting the crowd to move.
The noise, the sight of some weapons firing, and the deployment of scores of other officers, slowly advancing, created an impact that resolved the situation without injuries. It also avoided, Hillmann said, provocative photos of injuries being caused by baton-wielding police, which might incite later disturbances.
“I didn’t want to use any of this,” he said. “It’s unfortunate this happened, and it was unfortunate we had to react at all.”
But, he said, “at the point we acted, it was a riot. We had a riot situation at 4th and Spring (streets) that afternoon.”
Burt said the favored crowd-control weapons of the Sheriff’s Department are the rubber projectiles, which come in two sizes, and the beanbags.
The less lethal weapons existed at the time of the 1992 riots, but the police and sheriff’s agencies in the area were not trained in their use, Burt said.
The Less Lethal Arsenal Moving to minimize physical contact between law enforcement officers and the violent suspects they are trying to control, police agencies ar acquiring a diverse arsenal of less lethal weapons. The new weapons and gases occasionally cause injury, but there are fewer and less serious injuries than previously, when batons were often the chosen instrument. *Standard issue riot helmet with Lexan face shield used by most U.S. law enforcement agencies. *Military M-17 gas mask, used during crowd control operations in which tear gas is employed. *12-gauge pump action shotgun, frequently used to fire less lethal rubber projectiles in civil disturbances. *Wooden riot baton, frequently used in crowd control as a prodding and short-range striking weapon. *Side-handle baton, often used in close quarters with violent crowds. *37-millimeter gas gun, fires a wide assortment of tear-gas projectiles and rubber projectiles. It is widely used in riot control, and is often used in jail riots. *Tear-gas grenade, releases several types of tear gas, usually about 10,000 cubic feet. It will burn for about 40 seconds and is used outdoors to disperse large unruly crowds. Its residual effects will impede access to areas for several hours in some cases. *Pepper gas aerosol canister, issued to most police officers. It has limited usefullness in riot situations because it is effective against one person at a time. *Long-range cartridge for foam stinger. *Short-range cartridge for foam stinger. *37-millimeter tear-gas cartridges, used to deliver tea gas at 50 to 70 yards against hostile crowds. *37-millimeter foam projectile, used to disperse hostile crowds. It is fired from a stinger gas gun or other less lethal gun, with range of 40 to 50 yards. Projectiles travel about 250 feet per second. *Rubber stinger-type pellets. Depending on size of cartridge, 140 or 220 pellets. Source: L.A. County Sheriff’s Department