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High-Tech Police Weapons Do More Harm than Good

Cops with “Less Lethal” Weapons Are Not a Substitute for a Functioning Mental Health System

Published in: The Nation
Demonstrators gather outside City Hall to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S., March 30, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters

In December the Los Angeles Police Department rolled out the BolaWrap, a hand-held weapon that shoots a Kevlar cord with hooks on it that wraps tightly around the targeted person.

This new weapon raises serious concerns. In the context of over-policing in the United States, there is great danger that police will use it more frequently than necessary, especially on people with mental health conditions, and, given historic police discrimination, black and brown people.

While the BolaWrap’s promotional material shows examples of knife-wielding suspects, their CEO explains they are intended for someone who “could be armed, non-assaultive, but non-compliant.” Chief Michel Moore of the the Los Angeles police said that his officers will use the weapon on people who refuse to comply with police orders, but not on people running away from or toward officers.

But simply not obeying an officer may be neither a crime nor a dangerous act. “Could be armed” describes anyone, given police training that emphasizes such danger in every routine encounter. This broad understanding of the weapon’s function may lead to overuse, like other weapons police use with similar purpose.

Electronic control devices (ECDs), including Tasers, were also designed to be “less lethal force” weapons for police to use on people they perceive as dangerous, instead of firearms. Though they are marketed as life savers, a 2011 Department of Justice report warned that officers may be using ECDs in situations in which they should be relying on nonviolent conflict resolution skills. They have even resulted in deaths. In 2017, Reuters found more than 150 autopsy reports citing ECDs that were fired by police as a contributing factor to deaths.

In the mid-2000s, I served as a Los Angeles County public defender, when ECDs were becoming popular with police. I learned of certain officers’ using them with alarming frequency, inflicting pain and injury, including shooting a naked man in his genitals during a police station strip search. Having ECDs available may have encouraged officers to use force unnecessarily, simply because they are an available tool and are thought to have less long-lasting consequences. BolaWrap could provide similar temptations.

Any increase in force used by police will not be inflicted equally. Discriminatory policing is widespread throughout the United States. For example, officers in New York revealed that commanders told them to target black and Latino people for arrest for minor offenses. A recent report found that the Los Angeles police were four times more likely to search black people during traffic stops than white people, though less likely to find evidence of a crime.

Human Rights Watch documented police use of ECDs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, finding that they use them on black people at triple the rate for white people. It is legitimate to fear that black and brown people will be the targets of more police abuse of new technological weapons, like BolaWrap.

These weapons are also more likely to be used on people with mental health conditions. In a promotional video, the BolaWrap CEO says: “Our product is specifically designed for people suffering mental health issues .” Chief Moore confirmed this anticipated function.

This marketing message unfairly stigmatizes people with mental health conditions as dangerous, when, in fact, they are much more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it. There is danger that officers will use the BolaWrap too frequently, and as a short-cut, when encountering people with mental health conditions.

Further, such technological “fixes” miss a bigger point. Mental health should not be a policing issue. Police are poorly equipped to help people having mental health crises when compared to mental health professionals—another weapon on their tool belt will not change this fact.

Depending on police is a costly and dangerous substitute for funding a functioning mental health system, but jurisdictions across the country have police respond to situations involving people with mental health conditions, instead of investing in supportive services that might avert crises in the first place. Deploying specialized weapons like ECDs and BolaWrap contributes to the illusion that police and force are the answer.

Police with more force options are likely to resort to such force more frequently. They are also likely to use the tools in poor neighborhoods and those where people of color live—the same neighborhoods where force incidents are much more frequent compared to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, and where communities lack resources for health, housing, schooling, and economic development.

Far from building trust, as Chief Moore suggests, new technological weapons, like BolaWrap, as with ECDs and others before them, put vulnerable and stigmatized people at risk of greater police violence.

Rather than investing in these weapons technologies, we should invest in our communities by providing needed services and opportunities that will promote well-being and enhance public safety.

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