France brings a new weapon to the less-lethal field

     Flash-Ball is not something from those paintball weekends. It's one of the newest less-lethal firearms to emerge. This one, from France, is used primarily for behavior modification — to neutralize combative individuals or to disperse riot...

Size matters

     Other agencies have other objections to the viability of the Flash-Ball. Size is one problem.

     "This unit is too large for the officers to carry on their duty belts, it is single shot, and there is potential for serious injury to a person if he were hit in the head," says Sgt. Kevin Corcoran, public information officer for the Columbus (Ohio) Police Department.

     Corcoran says the Columbus PD uses other forms of less-lethal technology when necessary, including the TASER X26, which has an effective range of 25 feet.

     "We also use a beanbag gun, but have found since going to the TASER, we don't use the beanbag gun very often," he says.

     As for using the Flash-Ball for riot control, Columbus has other items they feel are better suited. "We currently use knee-knockers, which fire large, round wooden bullets that skip off of the ground so they hit rioters in the knees," Corcoran says. Knee-knockers are fired from a rotary weapon so the unit does not have to be loaded after each shot.

     "We also use gas guns that disperse chemical gas into a crowd," he says. "We have found these items more suited for situations than the Flash-Ball." James Benson, chief of police in Middlesex Borough, New Jersey, says the Flash-Ball could have a place in domestic law enforcement, but as a former firearms instructor, he would prefer to fire the weapon to judge its accuracy from varying distances before making a final judgment. Cost, ease of use and ease of training would be other factors to consider, he says.

     Benson serves on the committee for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police that is working with the New Jersey state attorney general's office to develop guidelines and procedures for the use of less-lethal weapons. Benson, like others, would like to see documentation of injuries and the severity of those injuries from an unintended Flash-Ball shot that struck someone in the head or face.

     Some studies have begun to appear in the literature.

Hot shot

     One report, in the 2006 issue of the "Journal of Emergency Medicine," documents injuries to two Swiss patients shot with the Flash-Ball who required medical attention. One was discharged quickly, but the other required hospitalization for heart and lung contusions. Both patients required imaging studies using computed tomography (CT) scans.

     Users of most less-lethal weapons are trained never to aim at or above the sternum. Some agencies, like the Englewood PD, are even more specific.

     "Our qualification with the 40mm includes engaging the subject in non-lethal areas such as the legs and arms," Johnson says.

     Less-lethal ammunition, while non-fatal by nature, can cause contusions, abrasions, broken ribs, concussions, loss of eye sight, organ damage, serious skin lacerations and skull fractures.

     Although the Flash-Ball is designed to avoid skin penetration, impacts at such energies may still create major trauma with associated severe injuries to internal organs.

     One month after the French embraced the Flash-Ball in 2002, Amnesty International (AI) contacted the interior minister, stating that while international standards encouraged the development of less-lethal weapons to reduce situations where police officers resort to firearms, the organization was concerned about reports that Flash-Ball projectiles could cause serious and even lethal injuries at close range.

     AI also expressed concerns that officers would begin to rely on such weapons instead of applying non-violent means and would fire at dangerously close range, unless training was rigorous and regular.

     Four months later, the interior minister replied that since Flash-Ball guns had been brought into use, there had been only one criminal investigation regarding their application, and the investigation had been set aside by the prosecutor. The minister added the number of criminal investigations regarding use of traditional service weapons had diminished by a quarter in the past decade. He also indicated there was regular training in the use of all bullet-firing weapons.

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