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Bat Belt Syndrome

"This is the law:
There is no possible victory in defense,
The sword is more important than the shield,
And skill is more important than either,
The final weapon is the brain.
All else is supplemental."
-John Steinbeck

What do your TASER, pepper spray, and baton have in common? Sure, they're all "less-lethal" tools designed to enhance officer and public safety. But, they have something else in common that many officers tend to forget. They are useless in situations where the suspect is too close for you to employ them. In a physical altercation, distance equals time. Without sufficient distance, you won't have time to access any of the gadgets on your "bat belt."

Assuming you were able to draw the appropriate less-lethal tool from your duty belt and deploy it, there is no guarantee that it will effectively neutralize the suspect. Let's examine some of problems associated with three of the most common less-lethal tools.

TASER

The TASER, perhaps more than any other less-lethal tool, tends to breed a false sense of security in officers. This can be attributed to the fact that it requires very little skill to operate and it allows even the smallest officer to take down King Kong-sized suspects. Another benefit is that it enables you to be up to 35 feet from the suspect, depending on the type of cartridge you are using.

However, the mere fact that you point your TASER at the suspect and pull the trigger does not necessarily mean that he will stiffen up and fall over like you've seen on COPS. In the real world, the TASER could be ineffective due to a number of factors including the following:

  • Battery problem
  • Mechanical problem
  • One or both darts miss the target
  • One or both darts fail to penetrate clothing

TASER International acknowledges the fact that their product is not infallible. In fact, the following quote can be found on TASER International's web site:

"No weapons system, tool, or technique is effective 100% of the time. Consider acceptable options, alternatives, and back up plans in case of ineffective deployment when deploying, activating, or otherwise using a non-lethal weapon, including TASER devices."

Pepper Spray

Ah, nothing beats a face full of your partner's pepper spray when you're trying to take a combative suspect into custody. When used properly, pepper spray is a viable less-lethal tool that has a high probability of success. Those of us that have been exposed to a good dose don't soon forget the experience. However, pepper spray may be ineffective due to any of the following circumstances:

  • Stream, fog, or foam misses target due to operator error
  • Suspect shields face
  • Suspect's glasses minimize effect
  • Suspect is immune to effects
  • Cross contamination issues

Baton

If I were a bad guy I would definitely choose the TASER or pepper spray over being struck with a baton. The effect of a well-delivered baton strike will last long after the TASER deployment or pepper spray exposure. At the very least, a baton strike is likely to result in significant bruising. There's also a strong possibility that a bone will be broken in the process.

You're probably thinking there's not much that can go wrong when delivering a baton strike. After all, most batons are made of nothing more than a 26-29-inch piece of hardwood and a rubber grommet. Or, in the case of the side-handled baton, a metal or hard plastic shaft with a perpendicular handle.

Keep in mind, the baton requires a much higher level of skill to use than a TASER or pepper spray. You also have to be much closer to the suspect to strike him, which could place you in a vulnerable position if the baton misses its target. Let's see what else can go wrong:

  • Baton misses target due to operator error
  • Suspect moves inside the arc of the baton
  • Baton hits but is ineffective
  • Mechanical problems (with expandable or collapsible models)

Tactics

As you can see, no matter how many tools we have at our disposal, they will never replace the need for sound tactics. Police work will always be a "hands on" profession. Here's why:

  • Situations can deteriorate quickly and there might not be time to deploy a less-lethal tool
  • There is no guarantee that the less-lethal tool will be effective
  • Even after a less-lethal tools has been used, the suspect needs to be handcuffed

Don't underestimate the importance of tactical communication (to prevent a physical altercation) and unarmed defensive tactics (when there is no time to access one of the tools from your duty belt). These are your primary tools. All else is supplemental.

Training

Instructors should create scenarios in which the officer's first less-lethal option fails. This will emphasize to the officer the importance of being familiar with the placement of equipment of his/her duty belt to facilitate a smooth transition from one force option to another.

Have instructors attack the officer spontaneously, requiring the officer to defend against punches, grabs, and/or takedown attempts. This will reinforce in the officer's mind the importance of adhering to basic officer safety tactics, such as maintaining/creating distance, watching the suspect's hands, keeping the hands up, as well as performing effective empty hand techniques to negate the initial attack. Then encourage the officer to create distance and deploy the appropriate tool.

To add an additional element of realism to the training, equip officers with inert pepper spray, training batons, and a non-functional TASER. This enables the officer to actually use the tools rather than just saying, "I would use my TASER now."

Conclusion

Make sure your tools are in good working order. Test your pepper spray periodically to ensure that it functions properly by spraying a short burst toward the ground (in a safe direction). Test the batteries in your TASER and inspect the cartridges before every shift. If you carry an expandable or collapsible baton, make sure it will open when you deploy it. Last but not least, ensure that you are thinking tactically. Remember that the final weapon is the brain.

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