HERBOLD: Non-Lethal weapons being adopted by SPD
Information from District 1 City Councilmember Lisa Herbold
This week, I joined SPD in their announcement that they were beginning their pilot use of the BolaWrap. Two years ago in April of 2021, I participated with Community Police Commission members, the Office of Police Accountability Director, and the Inspector General, in a demonstration of the BolaWrap. The BolaWrap differs from the TASER, baton, and pepper spray, in that it does not rely on pain-causing mechanisms for compliance. Instead, it uses a Kevlar rope aimed at the legs or arms of an individual to detain them. This tool is often referred to as “mobile handcuffs.”
As much of Seattle knows, our community safety network is growing, expanding, and changing as we build new investment strategies to provide services and care to prevent crime, new response systems to answer 911 calls with a behavioral health nexus and new tools and tactics for police to maintain public safety.
Even as we build out an innovative public safety system across city departments, it is a reality that there are certain situations when police must take someone into custody or take immediate action to stop someone who poses a threat to the safety of themselves, officers, or others around them. Less-lethal tools are used to interrupt a person’s threatening behavior so officers may take control of the situation with less risk of injury to the subject, bystanders, and police. Currently, three of the most common less-lethal weapons used by SPD are the TASER, the baton, and pepper spray.
In 2012, the City entered into a Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, in part, to reduce “the use of force against individuals in behavioral or mental health crisis.” At that time, 70% of all use-of-force encounters between citizens and SPD officers involved people in a behavioral crisis. SPD has reduced that percentage to 23%. Of the 10,000 contacts that SPD officers now have each year with people in a behavioral crisis, only a fraction involve any physical contact at all.
Nevertheless, the Office of the Inspector General, the Office of Police Accountability, and the Community Police Commission have all raised concerns that with the deaths of people like Derek Hayden, Charlena Lyles, and Terry Caver at the hands of police we still have challenges with how to address people who are in a mental health crisis and are armed with an edged weapon. An OPA recommendation made originally in August of 2021 and reiterated in 2022, recommended that SPD “research and test other less-lethal tools (e.g., Bola Wrap, net gun) to supplement SPD’s existing equipment, which may reduce the use of deadly force.”
The department has de-escalation policies that emphasize that, when “safe and feasible,” officers should make an effort to buy time in tense situations by placing space and barriers between themselves and a person in crisis, and that officers should enter potentially volatile situations with some de-escalation plan in mind.
Less-lethal tools are only allowed to be used in scenarios they are determined to be reasonable, necessary, and proportional in response to a public safety risk in order to protect people from imminent physical injury. New technologies like the BolaWrap device will serve as meaningful de-escalation tools to help prevent tragic outcomes.
I appreciate SPD engaging with our accountability partners in this work, and the CPC and OIG for not only identifying a problem but also working to find an approach that can reduce the use of force and fulfill the spirit of the Consent Decree while maintaining public safety.