Santa Ana Police Add a Nonlethal Weapon

Times Staff Writer

The Santa Ana Police Department will become the first law enforcement agency on the West Coast to use a new, nonlethal technology to capture suspects, officials said Thursday.

The FN 303 Launcher replaces the use of beanbags by Santa Ana patrol officers. Beanbags, which are fired from shotguns using gunpowder, will remain an option for the SWAT team.

The launcher, which weighs 5 pounds and is 29 inches long, uses compressed air and can be used only with specific projectiles. It fires at a rate of about 290 feet per second, according to Kim Hagen, Santa Ana police range master.

"Even at 50 yards, this is very accurate," said Hagen as he fired orange paint balls at a dummy's hand and knee. "That is two times farther than a beanbag shotgun."

The launcher carries a 15-round magazine and has an optimum range of nearly 55 yards; the department's Taser guns have a range of 21 feet, police said.

Because the launcher's rounds are filled with paint, dye or water, it is not considered a firearm, Santa Ana Police Sgt. Baltazar De La Riva said.

"The intent is to have all the launchers in the field to have the maximum coverage," De La Riva said. "This is just another tool to subdue a suicidal or uncooperative individual."

Beanbags have fallen out of favor with some law enforcement agencies because police discovered that they were more dangerous and inaccurate than manufacturers had claimed.

Under stressful conditions, some officers have inserted ammunition instead of beanbags and fired at suspects, officials said.

Nationwide, 12 people have been killed and dozens injured by beanbags, according to law enforcement experts. The launchers are considered much less dangerous to suspects' safety.

The eight launchers, which cost about $1,000 each, will go into use next month, after police receive training, De La Riva said.

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