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.
After more than 400 additional test rounds, it was determined that beanbags with an impact surface area of less than 1.3 square inches penetrate tissue, causing a significant risk of serious injury and consequent risk of fatality. Failure to deploy properly and achieve this minimum required impact surface area was common with smoothbore barrels. However, the same square beanbags fired through a rifled barrel are spun open at the muzzle by the centrifugal forces acting upon the beanbag rotating on its axis, according to "12 Gauge Beanbag Fatality Risk Investigation" by D. MacPherson, D. Hudson and R. Maruoka in the Fall 2000 "Wound Ballistics Review," reducing penetration risk from unopened bags. Without penetration, the only potential for serious injury is that resulting from blunt trauma. Avoiding head and neck impacts, according to "Citizen Injuries from Law Enforcement Impact Munitions" by D. Klinger and K. Hubbs in the same issue of "Wound Ballistics Review" and "Modeling Blunt Trauma from Projectile Impact" by D. MacPherson in the Winter 2002 "AFTE Journal," can adequately manage this risk. For subjects likely to have brittle bones (the elderly and methamphetamine abusers), upper chest impacts should be avoided.
Responding to the new information, the LAPD changed the primary aimpoint from the sternum to the belly button and trained for point-of-aim at secondary targets such as hands and legs. In 2000, the LAPD retrofitted its arsenal of 300 beanbag shotguns with rifled barrels. At the same time, the LAPD made vivid green markings on the shotguns to distinguish them from regular duty shotguns, consistent with LAPD color-coded weapon systems, according to "Managing Your Training Risk" by R. Webb and L. Salseda in the August 2002 issue of "Law Enforcement Technology." The next step involved a closer study of the beanbag ammunition and its physical composition and performance.
Sock round issues
Although sock rounds have been touted as an answer to the injury problem, testing indicated that when fired through a smoothbore shotgun, these rounds penetrate gelatin, unless the velocity is below 250 feet per second. Most conventional sock rounds limit penetration potential by keeping the projectile velocity below the penetration threshold. These sock rounds rely on the velocity decay of the projectile (standoff distance of 30 feet) and the resilience of skin as a penetration barrier. The 30-foot standoff distance is very limiting, and relatively low-velocity projectiles are less effective (pain compliance) than those with a higher velocity.
The LAPD conducted beanbag performance studies that have a depth of analysis and testing that is unprecedented for a law enforcement agency. The collaboration of LAPD technical specialists involved several hundred hours of mathematical modeling, laboratory testing and practical experience.
The goal of these studies was the creation of a more effective beanbag that is deployable at shorter range without penetration risk. The concept was a higher velocity customized sock round without a tail fired through a rifled barrel. This would open up to form a disc and strike the target at the maximum expansion diameter to prevent penetration.
Developmental testing and adjustments resulted in a beanbag cartridge specification that had very strict requirements for accuracy, velocity variation, the diameter of the impacting beanbag and the integrity of the beanbag during impact. The LAPD offered no design assistance to manufacturers and treated its activities as proprietary. All beanbag cartridges submitted for consideration were subjected to the same battery of tests outlined in the specification to evaluate the required performance parameters. Three out of four manufacturers had significant non-compliances and were rated unsatisfactory.
The beanbag rounds submitted by Combined Tactical Systems were far superior to the other submissions and secured the LAPD contract. The final outcome is a highly effective, low-risk, three-part system that requires a proper aimpoint, specifically designed beanbag ammunition and rifled barrel shotguns.
LAPD scientists tried without initial success to influence department policy regarding the deployment range of this new beanbag system. In 2005, under the leadership of Chief William Bratton and his forward-thinking command staff, the LAPD revisited this issue and revised its minimum deployment distance to 5 feet. This minimum range is driven by tactical considerations when deploying shoulder weapons, not penetration risk. Both analysis and tests confirm that the beanbags are essentially fully deployed 2 feet from the muzzle of a rifled barrel and do not penetrate ballistic gelatin. The maximum range is 45 feet, and the primary aimpoint is the belly button with secondary targets of hands and legs.
A statistical assessment during an 18-month period revealed that 50 percent of the applications deviated from the primary belly button aimpoint (mostly appendages and back) without adverse outcome. The reasons for aimpoint deviation were as diverse as the scenarios, but 82 percent of the suspects were dissuaded from their unlawful actions without serious injury by use of the LAPD 12-gauge beanbag. Individuals not deterred by the beanbags were invariably under the influence of narcotics or extreme antisocial behavior and were ultimately subdued by physical force. The beanbags leave a surface abrasion that is influenced by layers of protective clothing and adipose tissue. Beanbags and other kinetic impact projectiles are designed to inflict pain and bruising without permanent injury. An acceptable amount of minor injury is expected with the use of any impact device, according "Less Lethal Injury Assessment" by W. Bozeman at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Less Lethal Forum in September 2005, and the LAPD 12-gauge beanbag is no exception.
The LAPD beanbag platform is capable of controlling combative subjects without causing serious injury and without compromising officer safety. It offers the most flexible deployment, accommodating almost all situations where a less-lethal response is appropriate and has proven to be more effective in safely controlling aggressive or combative persons. The LAPD anticipates a reduction in lethal force incidents as a result of officers using the beanbag shotgun as a close-quarters tactical tool.
Flexibility is key to tactical success during field operations. While the new beanbag platform is not a replacement for lethal force, it may be used during tactical operations in conjunction with lethal force options. For example, officers in the field are using this platform as a secondary force tool during building entries when backed up by lethal force weapons. Additionally, specialized tactical units within the LAPD now deploy the new beanbag platform during tactical operations to provide additional flexibility in force options.
The effectiveness of the beanbag applied at deployment standoff distances that overlap the use of both chemical agents and conducted energy devices makes this one of the most valuable tactical assets in the less-lethal arsenal of law enforcement.
Doreen Hudson is in charge of the LAPD Firearms Analysis Unit, Scientific Investigation Division. Capt. Richard Webb is the commanding officer of the LAPD Use of Force Review Division. Hudson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Webb can be reached at email@example.com.