Kinder, gentler ammo
News item, from Times reporter Steve Myrick's account of the recent special town meeting in Oak Bluffs:
"Voters also approved spending to cover...purchase of protective helmets, vests and 'less lethal munitions' for police vehicles. Police chief Erik Blake explained he wants to purchase 'beanbag' ammunition for situations where a subject needs to be temporarily disabled, and when lethal force is not justified. The small 'beanbags' are packed into a conventional shotgun shell. They are designed to cause debilitating pain and bruising, but not to penetrate the body."
The precision of language can be a wonderful thing. "Impact munitions" is the technical term for this new breed of ammo that's designed to spread on impact and deliver a body blow roughly comparable to a Roger Clemens fastball. Some literature refers to "nonlethal ammunition," but that's not exactly right: A recent study done for the U.S. Justice Department reported about one death a year across America from the use of impact munitions by police.
In Edgartown, police have carried specially modified Remington 12-gauge shotguns in the trunks of four cruisers for the past six years. The stocks and pumps of these guns are fluorescent orange, and each gunstock is labeled in bold marker strokes: "Less lethal." The Remingtons are loaded with beanbag ammunition.
The force hasn't exactly been trigger-happy: Chief Paul Condlin reports that no Edgartown officer has yet fired a beanbag round except in practice, as part of the yearly certifications. But the weapons have been drawn, and his department has even been asked to take the beanbag Remingtons across town lines, to assist other Island police in situations where the special ammunition might prove useful.
"It gives us another level of force," says the chief. "Unfortunately, when you get to the level of deadly force, you may be facing a person who's holding a knife. Do you really need to go to that level? This is an additional resource for us that allows us not to have to go to the extent of deadly force."
Beanbag ammunition is part of a national trend in police work, as law enforcement looks for new tools that help defuse situations while posing less danger to the people involved. In fact, says Chief Condlin, few things have changed police work more dramatically in the last generation than the nonlethal weapon of choice - the little can of OC spray each officer now carries.
OC is oleoresin capsicum, a chemical found in cayenne pepper. It's an instant takedown sprayed from a can, causing uncontrollable coughing, wracking body spasms and temporary blindness. Thanks to OC, says Chief Condlin, a 30-year veteran of the Edgartown force: "Basically, the days of rolling around on the ground - that's been diminished by a lot. We're not wrestling people as much anymore as in the old days." Nowadays, when someone resists being taken into custody, he says, "Everyone just gives them plenty of warning, steps back and, psssst, neutralizes them. It's very effective."
Here's a piquant fact: the pungency of peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units, a scale developed by the American chemist Wilbur Scoville. Tabasco sauce has an SHU rating of about 5,000. Police OC spray is closer to five million.
Before police can use pepper spray, they undergo training that involves being hit with it. (Cops aren't shot with beanbag ammo - the risk of injury is too great.) That experience, Chief Condlin says, gives officers a healthy respect for the spray. Care is especially needed when using it outdoors: Holding up a finger as if checking the wind, he says with a grin, "I've seen people get caught."
Police work is one of the few professions on Martha's Vineyard where getting hurt is a fairly common part of the job. The Edgartown force has lost one officer to permanent disability after an injury suffered while delivering a drug-addled person to the Island jail, and another recently suffered a broken rib in a tussle with a man he found passed out on the side of the road.
In the course of their work, police inevitably have to face people who, for one reason or another, are spoiling for a fight. This is the context we must remember in the debate over such new tools as OC spray and beanbag ammunition. We need to ask how the situations in which they're being used might have played out if the only tools available were nightsticks and guns.
Imagine yourself as that officer with the freshly fractured rib, supine in the darkness along Pennywise Path, with a menacing figure now standing over you and considering how next to express his rage. If all you had was a firearm, you'd be justified in using it. But now there's another way to end the story. If it were me, hurt and on my back that night, I'd be saying, TG for OC.