France brings a new weapon to the less-lethal field

June 15, 2007

     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 crowds.

     Belligerent or combative behavior is quickly modified by the device, which fires 28-gram, soft rubber balls with the stopping power (200 joules at 2.5 meters) equivalent to that of a .38 Special. Company literature claims the punch it delivers equals a Mike Tyson knock-out punch from up to 10 meters. Yet the soft rubber projectile is designed not to penetrate the skin of a normally clothed person.

     The Flash-Ball was developed by French arms manufacturer Verney-Carron and is available in two versions. The super-pro version features vertically stacked barrels and is made from metal alloys, while the compact model is made from lighter composite materials with the twin barrels side by side. Both versions can be used to fire a variety of ammunition. A soft 44mm rubber ball is the most common.

     On impact, the ball crushes and releases its power over an area of approximately 35 cm2, an area more than 50 times greater than the impact surface of a .38 (0.63 cm2).

     A number of French law enforcement agencies, including the Brigades Anti-Criminalité, Groupes d'Intervention de la Police Nationale and Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion, and several police agencies in other counties have adopted the sidearm since 2002.

     The decision to extend France's use of Flash-Ball guns was made by the interior minister after various police officers had come under attack. Proponents say the gun is maneuverable and lightweight (3.4 pounds). Police also are said to enjoy the deterrence afforded by the menacing appearance of the unit's twin 44mm barrels and its firing noise equivalent to a 12-gauge.

Great guns

     Although it has made an appearance in at least one North American police arsenal, no U.S. agency has yet adopted the Flash-Ball.

     The Flash-Ball is similar to other less-lethal weapons already in use by some domestic agencies. The Santa Ana (California) Police Department, for instance, employs a variety of less-lethal firearms, including 12-gauge beanbag rounds, and 37mm and 40mm impact rounds. Additionally, the department uses the FN303 less-lethal launcher, which uses compressed air to fire .68-caliber frangible projectiles.

     The 37mm and 40mm launchers are similar to the Flash-Ball in that they use the same basic types of munitions. The main difference is the 37mm and 40mm launchers are shoulder-fired weapons. The Flash-Ball fires like a pistol.

     "For a number of reasons, shoulder-fired weapons are inherently more accurate than handheld weapons," says John Gabelman, commander of the Santa Ana PD's training division. "A shoulder-fired weapon system increases accurate shot placement and reduces the chance of civil litigation due to an unforeseen injury."

     Less-lethal does not imply never-lethal. Munitions fired from most less-lethal weapons can cause death if vital areas are struck: head, eyes, throat and possibly the upper abdomen. Because of this, Gabelman says Santa Ana would more than likely stay with a shoulder-fired less-lethal weapon system.

     Less-lethal expert Brad Johnson, of the Englewood (Colorado) Police Department, also sees little reason to change equipment.

     "I believe our system of the combination TASER and 40mm is far superior," Johnson says. "The Armor Holdings 40mm multi-launcher and single-shot models we use deploy the eXact iMpact round for general patrol use and many types of riot control munitions that include gas, baton rods and Stinger balls."

     Johnson says the multi-launcher and the single shot are accurate to 25 yards. He also believes, like many firearms experts, the sighting system and handling of the 40mm in the rifle-like configuration is superior. The Flash-Ball comes in pistol design only.

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.

U.S. less-lethal use

     The use of less-lethal weapons is still evolving in the United States, although nearly all larger law enforcement agencies have written policies pertaining to the use of less-lethal force, according to a 2000 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) survey.

     "Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, 2000: Data for Individual State and Local Agencies with 100 or More Officers" revealed that rubber bullets and/or soft projectiles were not among the most popular less-lethal impact devices deployed in the United States, especially by state police agencies. Only seven state law enforcement agencies — Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Missouri — authorize the use of rubber bullets and/or soft projectile-types of less-lethal weapons. By comparison, flash-bang grenades are approved for 21 state police agencies. Only two state police agencies (Alaska and Ohio) authorize the use of conductive energy devices, such as TASERs.

     Rubber bullets and soft projectile weapons were somewhat more popular with local law enforcement agencies. Of the 755 local agencies with 100 officers or more responding to the survey, 220 authorize use of either or both types of weapons, lead by California (61), Florida (30) and Texas (11).

     Ten states — Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia — plus the District of Columbia, had no respondents reporting use of either rubber bullet or soft projectile devices.

     Flash-bang grenades were far more popular among police, with 425 local agencies authorizing use. Electrical devices were authorized for use by 135 of the respondents.

     Interest in less-lethal weapons began to grow as a viable alternative to deadly force for police following the 1985 Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee v. Garner, which held that the use of deadly force to apprehend apparently unarmed, nonviolent fleeing felons was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

     Then Attorney General Edwin Meese called a conference to address the need for alternatives to deadly force. Later the NIJ established a less-lethal technologies program. Through this program, the NIJ seeks technologies that provide new or significantly improved less-lethal options to law enforcement and corrections professionals to enable them to reduce the number of deaths and injuries to suspects.

     Douglas Page ([email protected]) writes about science, technology and medicine from Pine Mountain, California.

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