San Jose police introduce ‘less lethal’ weapons in place of guns, rubber bullets, batons
San Jose Police Officers stand outside City Hall on May 30 on the second day of George Floyd protests. File photo.

In a direct response to criticism during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, San Jose police officers have been trying new tools meant to reduce harm and injury.

In a report coming before the San Jose City Council today, Acting Police Chief David Tindall said new TASER models, pepper gel and tether launchers — used to restrain aggressors —  show promise in reducing the need for batons, rubber bullets and firearms.

SJPD studied these products for use in conflicts where the aggressor did not have a gun and was either a threat to others, behaving erratically, mentally ill and in crisis.

But that might not be enough to satisfy some proponents of police defunding.

Rosie Chavez, a community advocate with Silicon Valley De-Bug, said money being spent on new weapons should instead be used to fund services for families, mental health and homeless residents.

Chavez and Laurie Valdez, who founded Justice for Josiah after her partner was killed by police, argue TASER weapons still have the capacity to kill if put in the wrong hands, citing the 2007 death of Steve Salinas, who was jolted numerous times by a former SJPD officer.

“All they want to do is find weapons, weapons, weapons, that’s their mentality,” Valdez said. “If we were investing in our community, if we were investing in our most vulnerable right now, we wouldn’t need the officers to be armed.”

Tindall agrees the department must not become over-reliant on technology at the expense of good training and sound decision-making.

“It is critically important that officers be trained to understand that less-than-lethal weapons are not in themselves a strategy for resolving critical incidents,” Tindall said. “At most, they are one possible element of a plan. As such, the department needs to continue to hire diverse and educated officers who possess critical thinking skills so they can determine what tool or tactic will best resolve individual incidents with varying factors.”

Pepper gel

SJPD’s training unit has been testing a new pepper-spray-like product called pepper gel since May. Tindall said the department uses pepper spray less than other tactics because it also negatively affected officers. Pepper gel is more potent, can be sprayed further and does not carry through the air as much as pepper spray, which reduces an officer’s chance of being exposed to it.

The department is in the process of swapping out the spray for gel. Tindall said the product could be used in lieu of the TASER device in some cases.

TASER weapons

Every sworn SJPD officer currently has the Axon TASER Conducted Electrical Weapon (CEW). The “less-than-lethal weapon” delivers an electric charge that targets the nerves controlling movement. The TASER device is used to “incapacitate armed and combative subjects” during mid-range conflicts, even if that person does not feel any pain, Tindall said.

A National Institute of Justice report found deaths from TASER weapons to be rare, but they were more likely to happen if the individual was under the influence or had an underlying health condition.

Unlike the CEW, a new TASER model called TASER 7 has two cartridges: one that fires long-range darts and another which fires at a closer range. A second cartridge is helpful if an officer misses the target and needs to fire a second round. Tindall said a second cartridge can help an officer avoid more violent tactics should the TASER weapon fail.

“The field test group has already reported positive results with this feature, including one deployment against a violent male who was in crisis and threatening officers with improvised weapons,” Tindall said.

According to a report by Tindall, the TASER 7 hit the person at a greater distance than previous models used by SJPD. The man hit did not suffer significant injuries as no additional force was necessary to detain him.

Valdez said one silver lining to new TASER technology is that TASER 7 alerts supervisors when activated and uploads data including officer name and badge number along with the number of trigger pulls and intensity of shock.

The City Council on Dec. 1 approved a contract for getting more of these TASER devices.

Restraints

Officers also tested the Bola WRAP, a device that releases a tether to restrain a subject. The Bola WRAP’s website likens the tool to “remote handcuffs.” Tindall said the wrap showed some promise when people were walking at a slow pace or standing still with hands near their sides. But SJPD remains skeptical of real-world applications.

“The Bola WRAP will not work if the subject is standing within 4-8 feet of any object, when the subject’s hands and arms are up and away from the sides and when the subject’s feet are separated or moving,” Tindall said.

The Los Angeles Police Department also tested the Bola WRAP with little success.

Reducing force 

The report is a result of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s 2020-2021 June 16 budget message and council direction to explore less-than-lethal use of force options.

Following protests over the May police killing of George Floyd, Liccardo called for a ban on rubber bullets in all crowd settings — but the push failed.

Between May and June, the city’s independent police auditor received 11 complaints alleging officers used excessive force. Peaceful locals were hit by rubber bullets and confrontations were recorded on video.

The San Jose City Council meeting begins at 1:30 p.m. and can be viewed on the city’s YouTube page.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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