Last winter, Duluth police officers responded to the report of a suspect who had threatened his ex-girlfriend at a Canal Park hotel.
Officers found the man a few hours later, but arresting him proved to be a challenge, said Lt. Bob Shene. The man refused to comply with officers’ commands at the scene and was not going to go down without a fight.
Officers did not want to approach the well-built man, believing he may be armed. A Taser would not be effective through his heavy winter coat. And police definitely did not want to shoot him, Shene said.
It’s the type of situation that can lead to long, tense standoffs or the exchange of gunfire.
“That was one of a number of incidents that made us realize that we had this gap in our use-of-force tools,” Shene said.
This spring, Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken asked Shene, the department’s use-of-force coordinator, to research options for closing that gap.
The result is the purchase of six “less-lethal” launchers - weapons that department officials say can make the difference between life and death.
The launchers fire a lightweight, high-speed sponge projectile. They’re designed to incapacitate - but not severely injure - the target. And, unlike bean bag projectiles that law enforcement agencies have long used, they will not penetrate skin.
The department provided training on the weapons last week for select members of each patrol shift. They’re now being carried in squad cars and will be available to officers at any time.
“This fills a glaring gap,” Tusken said. “We needed to do our due diligence to make sure we have the right tools and training to save lives.”
While the launchers won’t completely replace firearms, police say they will be useful in situations like mental health crises and arrests of potentially dangerous suspects.
“This is so we don’t have to use deadly force,” Shene said. “With the increase we’re seeing in mental health cases - my gosh, we can save someone who is having a crisis and not have to put ourselves in that position (of using a firearm).”
Safer and more effective
The launchers fire a 40-mm sponge round at a speed of 325 feet per second. For perspective, that’s less than a second to clear a football field.
The impact of the sponge head on the body carries roughly as much kinetic energy as being hit with a baseball at 90 mph, Shene said.
“We’re talking about blunt trauma that incapacitates,” he said. “It’s not a pain-compliance thing. A lot of tools we have still give the person the option of whether they’re going to comply. This is to end something now.”
The launchers are most effective at a distance of 10 to 75 feet. By comparison, a Taser is only effective at distances of approximately 9 to 21 feet, and even then does not always work.
Perhaps most importantly, Shene said, the sponge rounds will not penetrate the skin. That’s the main concern with bean bag rounds - hundreds of which the department has in storage and does not use.
Shene said he sees the launchers as being particularly effective when suspects armed with knives or clubs have made threats of violence against themselves or others, including “suicide by cop” situations.
It is recommended that officers fire the weapon around the thigh or calf of the subject, though Shene said the abdomen or above can be targeted if the situation warrants it. He said he was not aware of any documented deaths or severe injuries resulting from the sponge rounds.
Shene stressed that lethal backup will always be used, and that firearms still will be necessary in life-threatening situations.
“If he’s trying to kill us, we’re going to shoot him. That doesn’t change,” he said. “But if we have the time, have the distance, have the cover and have an opportunity to save a life, that’s what this provides.”
Devices already in use
The less-lethal launcher technology is not new. In fact, the department’s tactical team has utilized the weapon for many years.
But the team takes time to assemble - perhaps an hour under ideal circumstances - and is deployed perhaps 10 times a year for high-risk operations, Tusken said.
The chief said cost has been the biggest hinderance to expanding their use. The department paid about $8,000 for the six launchers, ammunition and training.
Tusken acknowledged that the public often is apprehensive about police purchasing new weapons - and having something on the streets that resembles a grenade launcher may raise some eyebrows.
“Police are under tremendous scrutiny in deadly force encounters - and should be,” he said. “You’re taking someone’s life.”
Tusken said that was a driving force in his decision to search for less-lethal options shortly after he was appointed interim chief in January.
“We’re going to look for whatever equipment we have available to peacefully resolve a situation,” he said. “First and foremost, we’re a life-saving organization. This gives us one more tool in the toolbox to safely resolve an incident short of deadly force.”
Shene said he has seen three cases on that tactical team where the launchers have been deployed to safely apprehend a suspect.
Notably, officers used the weapon to arrest Superior murder suspect Juan Padilla outside a West Duluth motel in May 2013.
Padilla initially refused to leave a car. Officers fired an initial sponge round, which shattered the side window. Padilla exited the vehicle, and a second shot ricocheted off the car. The third struck him in the side.
“He just laid down and didn’t move,” Shene recalled.
Opportunity to save lives
Twenty officers underwent training for the launchers last week, with more planned.
Shene said multiple officers on each shift are being trained, with as many as five being available to patrol officers at a moment’s notice.
The expansion of the less-lethal technology has come with support from the Duluth Citizen Review Board, which provides policy recommendations to the department. Several members had the opportunity to test the weapon last week.
Member Renee Van Nett said people often react “first with fear, and then anger,” when police implement new technology. But she said it’s hard to find a downside to the less-lethal devices.
“The feeling I got right away is that this is going to save lives,” she said. “There’s such a big difference between using lethal force and a Taser. This is going to be a great thing for police to have.”
Shene also said he hopes the community can back the effort, noting that a high percentage of officer-involved shootings involve people with mental illness.
“That’s been a hot thing for police departments across the country,” he said. “Why are we killing people who are having mental health issues? Isn’t there something we can do so we don’t have to? This gives us that opportunity.”