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US police officer tests a less than lethal weapon
US police officer tests a less than lethal weapon
Less than lethal: Shooting to live

British police officers shoot, on average, one person every eight weeks - a third of whom die. Many are innocent of serious crime and 25% are mentally ill.

UK police rules and training often force officers into situations where 'shooting to kill' can appear to be the only option.

But American police forces may have discovered an alternative.

I think the British policeman deserves...alternatives other than shooting someone dead

Anthony Scrivener QC
Baltimore is America's second most violent city. Despite dealing with 300 murders a year Baltimore police officers have a reputation for not shooting to kill.

Following two high-profile cases in which officers shot dead an elderly mentally ill woman and a young man armed only with a penknife; Baltimore City Police reviewed their firearms policy.


They developed less than lethal weapons - guns that hurt but do not kill - as a means of resolving conflict without causing serious or fatal injuries. Other American police departments soon followed Baltimore's lead.

UK police officers have few weapons beside truncheons and guns and so have fewer options when dealing with confrontations.

Also, as UK policemen are trained to 'shoot to stop' by aiming at the trunk of the body - this can result in innocent people being killed.

Former Anti-Terrorist officer Charles Shoebridge told Panorama: "The training is 'shoot to incapacitate' so, in other words, you shoot at the bulk of the body area, the trunk area and, not invariably but in a very large number of cases that will result in death."

Anthony Scrivener QC says: "I think the British policeman deserves better than that, I think he deserves the assurance that he has been given accurate information before he takes a life and that he's given alternatives other than shooting someone dead."

Plastic bullets

UK police have traditionally argued that they need the option of lethal force in dangerous situations, but now the current leadership of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) favours the introduction of some safer technologies such as plastic bullets.

The UK Home Office has recently approved the use of plastic bullets but they are yet to be used in England.

US police officers
US police officers
Less than lethal weapons are now US police departments' weapons of choice.

They particularly favour the "Bean Bag" which looks like a conventional shot-gun round but the lead shot is contained in a cloth envelope so when fired it cannot, in theory, penetrate flesh.

However, Bean Bags hit a target with the force of a cricket ball travelling at 95 miles per hour.

US police officers are trained to shoot plastic bullets at arms and legs only - the head, chest, groin and knees are no-fire zones - to further reduce the risk of injury or death.

Saving lives

Captain Sid Heal of the LA County Sheriff Dept claims 1500 to 2000 lives have been saved over the last 5 or 6 years nationwide by the use of less than lethal weapons. He says: "If that errs, it probably errs on the conservative side"

Back in the UK former Anti-Terrorist Officer Charles Shoebridge says: "There are many circumstances...where non-lethal force could have been used had it been available to the officers."

ACPO firearms spokesman Peter Neyroud
Peter Neyroud
ACPO Firearms Sub-Committee member Peter Neyroud disagrees with US findings on Bean Bags: "Our research suggests that they are quite likely to kill you"

American research suggests, however, that there is only a one per cent chance of a Bean Bag causing death.

While conceding Bean Bags will not solve every solution Captain Sid Heal robustly supports their use: "What's the alternative? Even with the shortcomings, as long as it doesn't cause the injuries that lethal force does, it's got to be preferable."

He added: "We have a saying 'If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to think of every problem as a nail', you don't really have any other way of solving the problem."

In three years Baltimore has tried, tested and deployed a range of less than lethal weapons. In that time the police in England and Wales have shot dead 12 people, and wounded another 14.

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