Search About Support Us
Filed 7:15 a.m.
09.23.2015

Alternatives to Bullets

From liquids that smell like dead animals to high-temperature heat rays, the present and future of non-lethal weapons.

In the wake of recent high-profile police shootings, manufacturers of non-lethal weapons have seized on the opportunity to sell devices they say might have saved the lives of Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and many others. Companies with names like Micron Products, Alternative Ballistics, and Bruzer Less Lethal International are now a part of the decades-old field of less-lethal weapons — also called “compliance” or “pacification” devices — offering everything from bullets that don’t penetrate to devices that slow bullets down.

“I just looked out there and there wasn’t anything that really would have been practical and useful in a tense one-on-one situation like in Ferguson,” says Christian Ellis, the CEO of Alternative Ballistics, which tried to sell one such device to the Ferguson police department. “That’s why we got into this business.”

Police officers, for their part, already have less-lethal tools on their belts — nightsticks, pepper spray, and TASERs — and some feel that the additional options are not much more useful despite their variety and complexity. “It’s like comparing phone plans,” says Sid Heal, former commander in the L.A.P.D. and an expert on less-lethal force.

Whatever the future holds for these alternatives, police departments already have, in recent years, added a few gentler tools to their arsenals. Below, an inventory of some of those tools, as well as a look at what might flood the market soon.

Bean Bags

A sock-shaped pouch filled with lead, silicone, or rubber balls, fired from a shotgun. The pouch expands in the air for wider impact.

Approximate cost: $4.50 to $6.50 per round.

When it’s most useful: Anytime a person is "noncompliant" but far away and "not yet a direct threat," says Steve Ijames, the police chief in Republic, Mo. and an expert on less-lethal force.

Effect on target: Pain, muscle spasms, and temporary immobility, but no penetration of the skin.

Why it’s appealing: It’s inexpensive.

Potential downsides: Unless a shotgun containing bean bags is adequately marked in a different color (usually orange), it can easily be confused with a shotgun loaded with real shells, which police call "cross-contamination" and has repeatedly caused deaths, according to the National Institute of Justice. Even if the correct gun is used, there is a risk of serious or deadly injury if the bean bag is fired at the head — and it’s difficult to avoid hitting the head, face, throat, or center of the chest "when a person is twisting or running around," says Heal.

Where it’s used: Different versions of bean bags have existed for over three decades, and are perhaps the most widely-used non-lethal weapon outside of the TASER, pepper spray, and nightstick. As the technology has evolved (from a flatter, squarer bag that was inaccurate as a projectile and sometimes failed to expand properly mid-air), it has become significantly less dangerous.

Blunt-Impact Projectiles

Plastic bullets (37 mm or 40 mm) capped with gel, silicone, or foam, fired from a single-shot gas launcher or giant revolver. The bullets are designed to flatten upon impact. They can also be filled with pepper spray or liquids that smell like fecal matter, rotten eggs, or dead animals, to further repel the suspect.

Approximate cost: $350 to $1200 for the gun, $25 per round.

When it’s most useful: Subduing a potentially violent suspect from a distance, and when the officer has time to get a large, specialized weapon out of the trunk.

Effect on target: Severe, blunt pain.

Why it’s appealing: The projectiles have a soft, wide surface of impact and should not be able to pierce through skin or injure internal organs.

Potential downsides: Very expensive and only useful at long range; also liable to cause serious or deadly injury if fired at the head, neck, or chest.

Where it’s used: The newest version has already been purchased by at least 16 law-enforcement agencies, including the SWAT teams in L.A. County and Sacramento.

Pepperballs

Small (.68-inch), round, plastic balls filled with synthetic capsaicin powder, the active ingredient in chili peppers. A paintball-style gun rapidly fires the balls, which explode after hitting any surface, releasing the powder.

Approximate cost: $150 to $300 for a paintball gun or $250 to $500 for a brand-name PepperBall gun; $3 to $5 per round.

When it’s most useful: Indoors (including in jails and other correctional situations), when the officer can aim at walls and ceilings to release the pepper powder.

Effect on target: Puffy, watery, stinging eyes; runny nose; difficulty breathing; and coughing.

Why it’s appealing: One of the few alternatives that doesn't need to make direct contact with the target — police can shoot it anywhere nearby, and the effect of the capsaicin powder will be the same. However, cops’ training and instincts often cause them to aim for "center mass," says Heal. According to Ijames, the pepperballs "beg a shot to the upper body, because the officer wants to make sure the suspect gets the worst of the pepper."

Potential downsides: The round shape of a pepperball is relatively unstable as it flies through the air, and because of "trajectory degradation," it is not nearly as accurate as a sleek, pointed bullet.

Where it’s used: Most famously used in 1999 during the “Battle of Seattle” anti-WTO riots. In 2004, the Boston Police Department accidentally killed a 21-year-old college student who was celebrating the Red Sox's World Series victory — by firing a pepperball at her eye.

“The Alternative”

An orange metal attachment that an officer can quickly clip onto the barrel of his handgun before firing a shot. The clip-on “catches” the bullet — like an airbag — making it fly about one-fifth as fast.

Approximate cost: $45 per unit.

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

When it’s most useful: Anytime an officer needs to fire his regular service weapon but does not want the shot to be deadly, and has time to attach this device.

Effect on target: Instead of penetrating and potentially killing the suspect, the slowed-down bullet only knocks him down. “But it might break ribs and it feels like getting hit in the chest with a hammer,” says Ellis, the CEO of the company that manufactures the product.

Why it’s appealing: The Alternative is a compact device that is relatively easy to incorporate into everyday use. The officer can take the clip-on from his belt and attach it to his handgun.

Potential downsides: According to Heal, one “weapons platform” should deliver only one type of force — either lethal or non-lethal. Combining the two on the same gun, he says, is inherently dangerous: What if the officer instinctively “double-taps” (pulls the trigger twice), as most police are trained to do? The result would be the firing of a lethal round right after the non-lethal one has already been discharged.

Where it’s used: A month after the shooting of Michael Brown, the assistant chief of Ferguson's police department took to Google, searching for a less-lethal option for cops. He came up with The Alternative, but after a group of experts sent a letter saying how dangerous they believed the device was, Ferguson has stopped considering it.

“The XREP”

Manufactured until 2012 by TASER International, the XREP is essentially a long-range, wireless version of the traditional TASER, firing plastic shells that each contain sharpened electrodes, a battery, a transmitter, and a microprocessor. When a shell hits the suspect, the electrodes are released and pierce through clothes and skin, releasing up to 50,000 volts of electricity for 20 seconds.

Approximate cost: Over $1,000 for the launcher, $100 per round.

When it’s most useful: For incapacitating people from a distance.

Effect on target: Muscles contract uncontrollably, causing the person to freeze and fall to the ground. And if the person attempts to pull out the electrodes, a circuit is created, spreading the effect.

Why it’s appealing: Like a TASER, the XREP can effectively subdue a person who is suicidal or under the influence of drugs, or otherwise has a high threshold for pain. And unlike a TASER, the XREP can be fired from a distance.

Potential downsides: The XREP’s high cost is its main downside. But, like TASER products, it could be dangerous: According to a 2013 report by Amnesty International, the TASER has caused more than 500 deaths in the United States since 2001.

Where it’s been used: TASER discontinued the XREP back in 2012, because it was expensive and “departments just weren’t buying it,” says TASER spokesperson Steve Tuttle. But several police departments around the country still have the XREP, and few use it occasionally. It was used in March by cops in Albuquerque, N.M., against a mentally-ill person.

“ML-12” Less-Lethal Launcher

A two-shot pistol that shoots most types of less-lethal ammunition (bean bags, pepper rounds, rubber balls, flares, etc.).

When it’s most useful: Close or hand-to-hand confrontations, at traffic stops, in small rooms.

Approximate cost: $549 for the launcher and holster, $4 to $7 per round.

Effect on target: Depends on the type of round.

Why it’s appealing: This is a weapon that the officer can wear on his/her belt and have on hand in any situation.

Potential downsides: It only fires two shots, and two-thirds of use-of-force encounters require an officer to fire more than twice, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Where it’s used: Tommy Teach, the founder of Bruzer Less Lethal International, the company that markets the ML-12, says it has been purchased by over a hundred "small, rural police departments — who prefer it to the TASER because of its lower cost."

“Active Denial System”

Designed by the military, the ADS, also known as the “pain ray,” is shaped like a satellite dish and shoots an invisible, 95 GHz wave of heat at the suspect — similar to the waves inside a microwave.

How it would be used: To stop, deter, and force the retreat of a person who is approaching too aggressively.

Effect on target: Heats the skin to 130° Fahrenheit in under two seconds, causing excruciating, quickly unbearable pain.

Why it’s appealing: The ADS has been thoroughly researched by the Department of Defense, and after 13,000 tests on human subjects, there have been only two serious injuries and no lasting side effects, according to the Pentagon.

Potential downsides: The ADS is very large; the existing model is designed to be mounted on top of a humvee or military-sized vehicle. Police would need a much smaller version with less range but greater portability (and one that doesn’t take half a day to boot up). The ACLU has also called the ADS a torture device.

Status: Available to the military in Afghanistan for deterring individuals who were getting too close to U.S. troops, the ADS was considered for use at the Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles County to disrupt assaults and fights. The National Institute of Justice has long considered developing a smaller, handheld version — to be used by law enforcement.