The Less-Lethal Shotgun
By David Jones
There’s more to less-lethal than loading beanbag rounds in an old Remington 870.
As more and more law enforcement agencies transition to rifles for routine patrol use (a good thing), many departments are using their older shotguns as less-lethal platforms. While this is an admirable and cost-effective strategy, many departments could also greatly benefit by re-evaluating their department’s policies. There is more to it than simply loading less-lethal (bean bag) rounds in an old Remington 870 and tossing it in a squad car’s gun rack. All officers who are issued less-lethal shotguns should receive (documented) training in the proper deployment of such instruments.
Less-Lethal Does Not Equal Non-Lethal
Even though some officers inaccurately call them “less-than-lethal” devices, these beanbags certainly have the potential to kill if used improperly. There is even a “potential” to cause fatal injuries if used as directed. That is why they are called “less-lethal” devices. These impact weapons have the ability to injure or kill in several ways. For example, a round impacting the upper body can cause significant head trauma, crush the larynx, or break ribs that can puncture the heart and lungs. Departments should incorporate specific training and qualification policies for all officers utilizing less-lethal shotguns and dictate what are acceptable targets and distances.
Another concern with using a standard shotgun for a less-lethal application is the potential to accidently load it with buckshot or slugs. In 2011, a Portland officer wounded a man when he mistook buckshot shells for less-lethal beanbag rounds. Mishaps of this nature can be reduced with training and policies that require officers to visually inspect each less-lethal round prior to loading immediately before use. When possible, a second officer on scene should verify each round as a failsafe. Additionally, departments should procure less-lethal ammunition that is of a visibly different color than the department’s live ammunition for easy recognition.
Dedicated Less-Lethal Weapons
Even with written policies in place and trained officers visually inspecting each round prior to loading, mistakes can still happen. These mistakes can be increased during high-stress encounters or during hours of darkness (which is often when these tools are most likely to be used). Not only would it be tragic if an officer mistakenly loaded buckshot or a slug when meaning to load a less-lethal round, but it could also have tragic consequences the other way around. If an officer engaged an armed suspect with the intention to use deadly force, but mistakenly loaded a less-lethal beanbag round, chances are it would not end well for the officer.
To alleviate all of these problems, the best solution is to have a dedicated shotgun serve as a less-lethal platform. This shotgun should ONLY have less-lethal ammunition loaded in it. Many departments employ policies where the less-lethal ammunition is carried adjacent to the shotgun (in a side saddle) and only loaded on scene so officers can still visually inspect the shells prior to loading. The less-lethal shotgun should not be carried in vehicles that carry patrol shotguns so as to avoid potential confusion. If department policy mandates that all vehicles must still carry a patrol shotgun, then the less-lethal shotgun should be strictly segregated (with one kept in the passenger compartment and the other in the trunk). Many departments that have transitioned to patrol rifles have restricted patrol use of shotguns to only less lethal in order to completely remove all possibility of cross contamination of ammo. This is an excellent safety precaution as it allows patrol officers (who have received less-lethal training) to carry a less-lethal shotgun and a patrol rifle (non-interchangeable ammo) in a ready mount inside the passenger compartment of the squad.
A dedicated less-lethal shotgun should be clearly marked as such to avoid any potential confusion. This is commonly done with the purchase and addition of a brightly colored (orange or yellow) stock and pump forearm. Many departments that repurpose older shotguns can even simply paint over the old furniture with clearly identifiable, brightly colored paint. It is still advisable that officers inspect each round prior to loading and do not assume the shotgun is loaded with less-lethal ammo simply because it has orange furniture. It is additionally advisable to employ a universally identifiable less-lethal weapon so all officers at the scene (even those from other agencies) can quickly identify the intentions of the apprehension team.
In addition to the color of the less-lethal weapon, the officer employing it needs to use extreme caution to ensure all other officers in the area are aware that a less-lethal weapon is on scene. This can be accomplished verbally or by a radio announcement (Less lethal on Scene) and officers can be advised to stay clear of the suspect. This is also essential to avoid potential sympathetic fire from additional officers who may mistake the less-lethal fire for deadly force action. As a preventative measure, the officer should shout a loud audible warning when firing the less-lethal device such as, “Beanbag! Beanbag! Beanbag!”
Lethal Force Cover
Any time an officer deploys a less-lethal option, he/she should have an officer covering with a lethal-force option (firearm). This is essential in case the situation rapidly escalates to a deadly force solution. The Less-Lethal Team, consisting of the Less-Lethal Officer and Cover Officer, must remain in close proximity to one another so they can perceive the situation from the same angle. If the cover officer and the less-lethal officer view the subject from different angles, they may perceive the effects of the less-lethal rounds or the actions of the subject differently.
In addition to the covering officer, other officers on scene must be aware of how to react when a less-lethal shotgun is employed on scene. Other than avoiding sympathetic fire and staying out of the path of the beanbag, they have another responsibility as well. They must be part of the dynamic solution. If the suspect complies with the orders of the less-lethal officer, then they must be ready to apprehend the suspect. If the suspect does not comply and is temporarily incapacitated by the beanbags, then they must be ready to apprehend him. If the suspect is not affected by the beanbags, they must be able to go to a plan B (lethal force, Taser, impact baton, hands-on, etc.). The officers on scene must have excellent communication with the less-lethal team in order to avoid potentially disastrous results. A possible example would be if the beanbags were ineffective and the apprehension team moved in from one angle while the cover officer fired a 9mm round from a different angle (failure in communication).
When developing less-lethal shotgun policy, agencies should consider how these devices should be employed, how they will be carried, and how officers will be trained. There should be specific operational guidelines for each. A less-lethal shotgun that is rapidly accessible to patrol officers can have significant benefits, not only in terms as a lifesaving tool, but also through public relations if marketed properly. That said, less-lethal options can also be a significant liability if utilized improperly.
The nationwide trend for law enforcement agencies to transition from shotguns to rifles has been a wise move. It allows officers of all sizes to accurately engage targets at multiple ranges. Additionally, it has created a surplus of department shotguns that can be repurposed into a less-lethal role. This has led many departments across the nation to purchase less-lethal 12-gauge ammunition to supplement their department’s use-of-force options. This in and of itself is a good thing, but departments new to less-lethal shotguns should develop a solid departmental policy and training plan. Additionally, departments that have already been employing these useful tools for many years may be wise to re-evaluate their training policy to ensure they are not getting complacent. PM
David Jones is a retired Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and is currently serving as a uniformed Federal Police Officer.