LOS ANGELES — A black man suffering from mental health problems, naked and unarmed, runs out into traffic where he is struck by a vehicle. He writhes on the pavement, then gets up and charges angrily toward a police officer. Taser hits fail to stop him.
It’s exactly the kind of scenario that haunts police agencies looking to avoid racially charged shootings like the one that rocked Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. There, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was killed by a white police officer, sparking national protests that helped bring attention to the Black Lives Matter social justice movement and its demand for police reforms.
But top law enforcement officials gathered at a training session on non-lethal force Thursday in Los Angeles said they still have no single, foolproof alternative to deadly force when it comes to subduing people who aren’t wielding firearms but are resisting arrest. Statistics show black and Latino people are disproportionately killed during these interactions.
“It is so critically necessary to find another way forward,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in opening the session. At a time when so many new tools have come on the scene, he said, “how can we apply that technology to some of our most vexing problems?”
Officers have a range of options, from bean-bag guns to their own billy clubs or fists, when it comes to taking resisting suspects into custody without pulling the trigger. They can defuse ugly situations by drawing them out or even retreating in cases where there are no hostages or other lives are not threatened.
The goal is to give police as many tools as possible and make sure they know to use them before they make the decision to shoot someone out of fear for themselves or others.
But no single tactic is perfect enough to get the job done, the officers were told during the training event. Tasers, for instance, are generally only effective about 60 percent of the time. They won’t work if fired too close. They also aren’t effective when someone is wearing thick clothing.
In choosing the best method of subduing a subject, “it’s about making critical decisions,” said New York Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill in an interview. But it’s important. When the public sees officers care for “the sanctity of human life,” it “builds trust,” he said.
The NYPD also has seen some encouraging trends. The number of incidents in which officers fired guns fell from 52 in 2017 to 35 last year.
Besides non-lethal electric-discharge devices like Tasers, NYPD’s non-lethal arsenal includes pepper spray, batons, a restraining mesh blanket, and the jaws of police dogs. Some departments also use beanbag guns or other rifles that fire nonlethal projectiles.
At the session Thursday in Los Angeles, various companies touted other new alternatives. One is a gel that can be discharged at greater distances than pepper sprays so officers can keep their distance. Another are devices such as one called the BolaWrap that use a gun to fire strings that wrap around the legs or arms of a person and immobilize them. And there’s a giant bullhorn that can allow officers to stand back and talk to a dangerous person from up to 300 feet away.
None of the alternatives is perfect. “There is a limit to technology,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which put on the event that attracted about 180. “When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s a disaster.”
Some police departments are also taking a new look at what they call “hands on” force. Los Angeles Police Chief Michael Moore said his department is considering whether to institute refresher training in grappling techniques used to subdue suspects. At present, recruits get the training, but it was discontinued long ago for veteran officers because it was causing too many injuries among them.
“Grappling is not the only answer, but it is one more tool,” officers can use to prevent escalation to deadly force, Moore said in an interview. “It is only going to improve their readiness.”
One element officers fear, however, is how the use of non-lethel force will be interpreted in video of incidents.
Officers, for instance, are sparing in their use of batons because the “optics” can look bad, said Sgt. Spencer Fomby of Berkeley, California. As a training officer, Fomby said he wants officers to know how to use physical skills. It’s one more tool, they say, the kind that can prevent an incident resulting in a fatality.
At the session, officers saw some videos of officers struggling with what to do about mentally disturbed people.
That naked, unarmed man running in traffic, then at officers?
The incident was real, occurring last year in Richmond, Virginia. When the man, later identified in press reports as Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old high school science teacher with no criminal history, couldn’t be stopped with Tasers, he was shot twice. He died.
The officer was not prosecuted in the shooting. Peters’ family said the man was having mental health problems and needed help, not to be fatally shot at by police.
Wexler said officers need to have a Plan B in case their attempts to peacefully take a person into custody fail. He said it’s all about asking: “How do you get a person out of control into control?”
The result, he said, “may look disturbing — but it gets the person to the hospital without losing their life.”