One of the most difficult challenges confronting a police officer during an encounter with an agitated, aggressive or violent suspect is the accurate assessment of the suspect's intentions. In many cases, the responding officer does not know if the suspect has been involved in a domestic incident, intends to commit suicide or has just committed a crime. The primary benefit of using any less-lethal device is forcing the suspect to declare those intentions while maintaining a tactical advantage, according to a presentation on less-lethal weapons by Sid Heal for the International Association of Chiefs of Police Firearms Committee in 2004. The Los Angeles (California) Police Department (LAPD), like other police agencies, is committed to officer safety, tactical flexibility, effectiveness and reverence for human life. The benefit of the LAPD's new beanbag platform is it provides officers in the field with a very flexible tactical tool that may be used to de-escalate a situation so deadly force is unnecessary.
Beanbags in law enforcement
The LAPD began using commercial 12-gauge beanbag ammunition in 1995 in response to a movement sweeping through law enforcement agencies to implement "less-lethal" weapons against combative subjects who would otherwise injure officers or themselves. Many of the available choices were products developed by manufacturers for use in correctional facilities to quickly quell disturbances that could escalate into riots. Beanbags were deployed from 30 to 45 feet to keep corrections officers at a safe tactical distance, while achieving their goals. Law enforcement recognized the potential for this type of application and adopted it; however, urban conflicts and confrontations often occur at distances much less than 30 feet. Therefore, the practical application of this device was hampered by the manufacturer's recommended standoff distance and essentially limited to outdoor use. Some beanbag manufacturers offered "close range" (reduced velocity) rounds, but the reduction in velocity reduced the beanbag's effectiveness. In addition, the potential for confusion over which rounds to load in a stressful situation was a deterrent for combining these applications.
Penetrations prompted investigation
In 1999, the LAPD had two fatalities as a result of unintended beanbag penetrations. In each instance, at reported standoff distances of 30 feet, the beanbags penetrated the chest between rib spaces and perforated the heart. Yet, at the same time, officers experienced some beanbags so underpowered they weren't exiting the shotgun barrel by more than a few feet. The LAPD's initial investigation prompted questions regarding the plausibility of the reported scenarios. Inquiries to other police agencies revealed that similar incidents were recorded in other jurisdictions, but information was anecdotal, and the use of beanbags was not as widespread as it is today.
The Firearms Analysis Unit of the LAPD Criminalistics Laboratory was tasked with the scientific investigation of the beanbag performance problems. Tests performed on the square beanbag ammunition and smoothbore shotguns used in the incidents revealed these fatal scenarios were not only plausible, but predictable.
Underpowered bags were attributed to poor quality control, but the penetrations required more intense analysis. The beanbags were studied in-flight using high-speed video and still photography provided by the U. S. Army Proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona. LAPD scientists observed that when fired through a smoothbore shotgun, these shot-filled bags did not open up in flight, as claimed by the manufacturers (see Figure C on Page 52). The performance problem of the square beanbag not striking the target flat as intended was repeatedly observed 40 feet from the muzzle of the smoothbore shotgun. Eighty percent of the bags traveled in the cylindrical configuration of a shotgun slug, as documented on film and by the small diameter perforation left on cardboard witness panels. It was readily apparent that folded square beanbags do not open reliably when fired in smoothbore shotguns.