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Don't shoot that bad guy, bag him

Police are using nonlethal devices here and elsewhere

Sunday, February 27, 2000

By Michael Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 29, 2000) The Allegheny County SWAT arsenal does not include rubber bullets. A story in Sunday’s editions on nonlethal devices used in law enforcement incorrectly reported that it did. Also, the Allegheny County SWAT team is equipped with bean bag rounds in its less-than-lethal arsenal. A story in Sunday’s editions on less-than-lethal devices said incorrectly it did not have bean bags.

Lorenzo Reddix had already threatened a Pittsburgh police officer with a knife and later was accused of cutting his uncle's arm and taking his 73-year-old grandmother hostage in his Perry Hilltop home early Feb. 18.

  Pittsburgh Police Commander Dom Costa with a 37mm projectile launcher, one of several less-than-lethal weapons recently available to the city's SWAT squad. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

The Pittsburgh police SWAT team was negotiating for him to surrender when Reddix, 21, allegedly began beating his grandmother with a baseball bat and a 5-pound weight in a third-floor room.

Unable to wait any longer, the SWAT team stormed the room, intent on rescuing the grandmother and taking Reddix into custody without injury to anyone else. But as the team entered, Reddix lunged at them, they said, banging the bat on the bulletproof shield of the lead officer with such force the metal was dented. Also, the officer's protective helmet was knocked off.

Reddix was viewed as dangerous and out of control. He had to be stopped. An officer aimed his shotgun at Reddix's chest and fired. Knocked backward but not down, he came at officers again. The officer fired again. This time Reddix fell to the floor.

Not only wasn't Reddix killed, he wasn't even injured. He had been struck not with lethal shotgun rounds but those holding 1-inch square bean bags.

The Reddix incident was the first time in the department's history that bean bag rounds have been used. Had the situation occurred before they were purchased about a year ago, the SWAT team probably would have had no option but to use lethal force, and Reddix likely would have been killed.

That's exactly the reason the Pittsburgh department, like its counterparts nationwide, is so open to expanding its less-than-lethal arsenal.

"The [trend] is growing in law enforcement across the country," said Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. "People expect us to enforce the law and want their streets to be safe. And they and we want to do it in a way that can prevent injuries, if possible."

Manufacturers of law enforcement equipment are filling that desire, inventing gizmos and weapons that resemble more the gadgets used by comic book superheroes than the billy clubs, guns and other weapons traditionally used by officers.

Consider, for example, the net that officers can fire from a gun to capture a suspect. Or the glue-type foam that can be squirted on a perpetrator, rendering him immobile. Or the magnetic strip that can be placed in the path of a fleeing auto in order to disable the car's computer chips, thereby shutting it off.

Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Penn Hills and state police and the FBI haven't ventured into those more esoteric areas yet--most aren't seen as practical or effective yet--but they have amassed a variety of other less-than-lethal weapons and devices.

Those agencies' SWAT teams, which generally are the units that would utilize such weapons, meet four times a year to discuss new devices and techniques and incidents they've encountered. The agencies are kept abreast of developments in less-than-lethal equipment through their membership in the National Tactical Officers Association, headquartered in Philadelphia. Also, McNeilly said his membership in national chiefs associations had been fruitful in that regard.

"We're always looking for better ways to improve our ability to control the situation with the least amount of force possible. No police officer wants to shoot anyone," said Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Dom Costa, head of the Special Deployment Division, of which SWAT is a part.

Among the equipment in the city SWAT team's arsenal are the following:

Rubber projectiles -- Like a bean-bag round, the rubber projectiles, which are similar in appearance to a 11/2-inch torpedo, are encased in a shotgun shell and are fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. Unlike bean bags, which are accurate only in close quarters, the rubber projectiles have more accuracy from farther away. The SWAT team got them within the last year when they purchased the bean bag rounds. They have used them only in training.

37 mm projectile launcher -- It launches a plastic/rubber projectile, usually from a perimeter, and is very accurate at 25 yards but can be used up to 75 yards. While single projectiles can be launched at an individual, it also can be used for crowd control by launching BBs, or "stinger rounds," at the feet. SWAT has had two of them for about three years but has never had to use them.

OC tanks -- Similar to fire extinguishers, the tanks hold OC, or pepper gas, that can be released for crowd control. SWAT has about a dozen but has used them only in training.

37 mm OC launcher -- The launcher shoots an OC canister from a perimeter into a house. It is used for hostage and barricaded incidents. Police have had these for years and have used them in live incidents.

Distraction devices -- A canister that resembles a hand grenade, the devices are activated by releasing a pin and throwing them into a building, creating a very loud bang and blinding light. The sound and light stun a suspect, allowing a SWAT team to enter a barricaded structure and take the suspect into custody.

Tire-deflation devices -- The kind ordered by Pittsburgh police is a 12-foot-long series of linked, plastic pads that officers roll out onto the roadway. The spikes can be retracted to allow cars to go over them without getting flat tires, and it can be used with remote control. McNeilly said that within six months, all Pittsburgh police cars -- marked and unmarked -- will have them.

The county SWAT team has similar equipment, although it does not have bean bag rounds, said county police Assistant Superintendent Paul Wolf, who oversees the department's operations division of which SWAT is a part.

Wolf and Costa both noted that while less-than-lethal weapons are great options to have, they are viewed as only options because situations sometimes will preclude their use and dictate deadly force. The key decision officers must make is how to protect themselves and the public from serious injury or loss of life.

For example, had the second bean bag not knocked Reddix down, officers probably would have had to use deadly force, said Costa, the supervisor on the scene.

"Fortunately, lethal force didn't have to be used. Hopefully, we'll always be that lucky."

"You always try your best to solve the problem without any injury or, God forbid, loss of life," Wolf said. "But in dangerous situations, anything can happen."

Costa said he was looking forward to more advances in the kinds of weapons available to police.

"I hope some day it will be like 'Star Trek,' and we have phasers and we'll be able to phase [suspects], and they won't be able to move."

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