Ever since the first badge was placed upon a police officer's uniform, law enforcement officials have looked for ways to immobilize suspects while protecting themselves and the public.
Over time, many products and weapons have been introduced to expand the so-called "use of force continuum" which starts with verbal commands and tops out at deadly force.
Pepper spray, electronic stun guns and shotguns that shoot beanbags are all ways that experts have discovered to stop a human being without killing them.
While beanbag shotguns have been available to officers in the Black Hills for more than a decade, their use has picked up lately.
Less than four months into 2015, the Rapid City Police Department and Pennington County Sheriff's Office have set a local record for one year’s use of beanbag shotgun rounds.
The new record is just three uses, and all three came in an 12-day span in March where the non-lethal rounds were fired to diffuse situations involving a suspect.
Since local police and sheriff's officers were equipped with shotguns armed with beanbag rounds in 2002, there had never been a year when collectively they used those shotguns more than twice in a year. The shotguns are pulled out by officers many more times annually, but are rarely fired.
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But then, From March 7 to 18 this year, the shotguns were fired in two incidents by police and once by sheriff’s deputies.
Sgt. Wayne Asscherick, one of the firearms instructors for the Rapid City Police Department, said the cluster of incidents is probably a coincidence rather than a trend.
“I think it’s because the timing of the incident just happened to be right in the cases you’re seeing,” he said.
A beanbag shotgun is really just a standard 12-gauge shotgun with special markings on it. What’s less lethal about it is the ammunition.
Inside the beanbag shells that look just like a traditional shotgun shell are little socks filled with lead pellets. When the gun fires, the sock shoots out of the shell and gun barrel at 270 to 290 feet per second (far slower than pellets from a standard 12-gauge shell) and thumps the target. When that target is a person, the impact of the sock results in immobilizing pain, accompanied by bruising and sometimes broken skin.
“I’m assuming, based on what I see, that it’s fairly intense pain,” Asscherick said, “because it makes them completely forget about trying to harm themselves or someone else, and that’s the intent.”
He considers beanbag rounds to be ideal for situations when there is enough time to contain a resisting subject within a defined area, and the subject is not an immediate threat to officers or bystanders. The ideal firing distance is 10 to 30 feet; anything closer could result in fatal injuries to the suspect, and anything farther could reduce the accuracy of the shot and the effect of the impact.
The procedure at a scene is for initial officers to provide “lethal cover” of a resisting subject with a pistol. Subsequent officers on the scene might bring a shotgun and use a beanbag round to immobilize the subject. The officers armed with beanbag shotguns target the subject’s major muscle masses.
The three recent cases were good examples of the usefulness of less-lethal shotguns.
On March 7, according to the Pennington County Sheriff's Office, T.J. Looking Horse, 26, of Rapid City, waved a knife and threatened deputies who were answering a disturbance call in the 2700 block of 143rd Avenue. A deputy fired a beanbag shotgun round at Looking Horse when he advanced, which caused Looking Horse to drop the knife and allowed deputies to arrest him.
On March 10, according to Rapid City police, Cody Hopkins, 30, of Rapid City, abandoned his vehicle in a residential neighborhood near Haines Avenue following a chase. He then broke into a home, police said, and apparently grabbed a knife before leaving through the front door.
When he refused to cooperate with officers, officers fired four beanbag shotgun rounds and hit Hopkins with three of them. He dropped the knife but continued running, and officers eventually subdued him with Tasers.
On March 18, according to Rapid City police, 10 beanbag rounds were fired and nine connected with the body of 69-year-old Robert Spangler, of Sturgis, in the parking lot north of the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn. Police said Spangler, who had agreed to meet with police for questioning on an apparently accidental shooting, was holding a knife and threatening to harm himself and officers. The multiple beanbag rounds finally caused him to drop the knife and allowed officers to move in for the arrest.
Asscherick was one of three officers doing the shooting.
“We shoot until the person’s no longer a threat, and that’s what we did that day,” he said.
No fatalities or serious injuries resulted in any of those three situations.
Contact Seth Tupper at firstname.lastname@example.org