The Wichita Police Department wants to control dangerous situations, but it also wants the people involved in them to survive.
As part of a new initiative, the department announced recently that it has acquired several “less lethal” weapons systems that shoot foam rounds instead of traditional bullets.
The new weapons were used on a suicidal man last month who had a knife to his neck when officers confronted him, Sgt. Nikki Woodrow said. The man was subdued by a foam round and taken to a hospital for mental health treatment.
The officers who responded to the call had received the foam-round launcher just two hours before going to the call, said police Chief Gordon Ramsay.
“It obviously could have been much different if we didn’t have that tool,” Ramsay said.
Ramsay said he first asked the department to start testing the foam-round launchers last spring. In the fall, about 60 officers were trained to use them.
“We don’t want to take lives if we don’t have to,” Ramsay said.
“Recognizing the sanctity of life is a priority for the Wichita Police Department. When I got into police work in the early ’90s, I would’ve thought by now that there would’ve been a tool available to us that would successfully incapacitate someone without killing them.
“Unfortunately, the technology hasn’t advanced as much as we’d hoped. But there are new tools coming out,” he said.
Last summer, the police department also started using bean bag shotguns as an option for supervising officers to use instead of lethal force, he said.
The change was made with the approval of the Fraternal Order of Police, the officers’ union.
“(Police) Command Staff and the FOP worked together on the policies and we believe that we have come up with a ‘best practice’ in relation to each of them,” Hans Asmussen, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a Facebook message response to questions.
The less-lethal weapons systems are designed to cause pain without penetrating the skin, according to the Wichita Police Department’s policy that discusses their use. But they can break bones, said Bill Cook, assistant range master for the Wichita/Sedgwick County Law Enforcement Firearms Training Facility. The gun range is by Lake Afton.
The “ALSTAC 40” systems cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each. The department has four of the launchers, with another four ordered.
One of the advantages of the new weapon is that officers can fire from close range.
“With a bean bag shotgun, you can be from 21 feet to 60 feet away,” said Lt. Chris Halloran. “With the launcher guns, the foam-tipped rounds can be shot from 5 feet away from a subject. It’s just another tool that officers and supervisors can use when responding to calls.”
In order to use a Taser, or stun gun, an officer must be within 25 feet of a targeted subject, Halloran said. Every Wichita police “supervisor car” – police supervisors respond to all 911 calls – is equipped with a bean bag shotgun, Halloran said.
“Our target zones (for officers using the less lethal weapons) are the abdomen, buttocks, legs and possibly arms,” Halloran said. “We don’t aim at the chest unless it becomes a lethal situation. There would also always be other officers at the scene who would provide lethal cover with a handgun or shotgun or rifle.”
While only supervisors have access to the launchers now, Ramsay said his goal is to expand use of the weapons within the department.
Ramsay added that in addition to deploying the foam-round launchers, the department also increased the number of negotiators it has to help talk through volatile situations from three people to nine.
The negotiators receive more training than other officers to deal with people in crisis situations.
The less lethal weapons system are “not an alternative to volatile and fast-moving situations. But it is another option for our staff to use,” Ramsay said.
He added: “Our officers have a very tough job, and there are situations where deadly force is going to happen. But we want to make sure that we’re training them and giving them tools to use for situations where these can be used.”