By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Every time an armed criminal is shot and killed by the police, the debate is reopened on the alternatives to firearms, whether it's stun guns, bean bags, lasers or even glue.
The sister of 32-year-old Mark Saunders shot after firing repeatedly out of the window of his west London home has said there was no need to shoot him dead.
But what else is there that can stop a criminal without killing them?
Armed officers deployed when suspect:
In possession of firearm
Has immediate access to firearm
Is otherwise so dangerous police firearm is necessary
A recent report from the Home Office Scientific Development Branch, which tests new equipment for the police, examined all of the mainstream options that fall short of conventional firearms.
Apart from the humble police baton, there are three main "less lethal technologies" approved for use by the police in the UK.
- The Taser X26
- the Attenuating Energy Projectile, and
- chemical incapacitant spray, either CS or less commonly PAVA (Pelargonic Acid Vanillylamide)
As the manufacturers of "less lethal technologies" like to point out, nothing is without the danger of death. A blow with a truncheon or a restraint technique can cause death in a vulnerable individual.
But there are weapons that are vastly less likely to kill than a conventional firearm.
In use in UK: Taser X26
Since September 2004 firearms officers have had the Taser available to them. Resembling a pistol in shape, the Taser fires two barbs attached by wires to a cartridge in the weapon. Catching on either the suspect's clothes or skin, electric current passes between the barbs.
While the current passes, suspects either freeze or fall to the floor and can be disarmed and handcuffed.
But there are a couple of catches. Even Taser's makers only claim 94% effectiveness and the Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines reflect this.
"The Taser normally causes immediate incapacitation and its effect may also cause muscles to contract. This may result in immediate and involuntary clenching of the fingers and/or the arms rising uncontrollably. This potential reaction requires to be factored into any decision to utilise the Taser against a subject actually holding what is believed to be a firearm, as the application of the Taser may cause the subject to unintentionally and indiscriminately discharge the firearm.
"Additionally, it has been shown that it is possible, in certain circumstances, for some individuals to maintain enough control to aim and fire a weapon while under the effects of Taser."
Tasers have, however, been used to subdue suspects reported to be carrying guns. In July a man in Kenton, Newcastle, was hit with a baton round and a Taser in just such an incident.
Another obvious catch is range - the cartridges used in the UK only reach a distance of 21ft.
In four years of Taser use between April 2004 and May 2008, the weapons have been deployed 2,662 times - including brandishing or aiming of the red dot sight - but only discharged 949 times.
Range up to 21ft
Issued to firearms officers in 2004
Trained non-firearms officers using them since last year
Taser records details of shock for inquiry
Can cause suspect to clench hands
There remain concerns over deaths in the US in incidents where a Taser has been discharged, although the manufacturers maintain it is safe.
Other options: The Home Office will soon be looking at a rival of the Taser, the Stinger S-200.
It has also looked at wireless electrical weapons, such as the Taser XREP a cartridge fired out of a 12-gauge shotgun that can travel up to 100ft (30m) and achieve the same effects as an ordinary Taser. Technical and independent medical evaluations are yet to be carried out in the UK on this weapon.
In use in UK:L60A1 Attenuating Energy Projectile (AEP)
The AEP is the successor to the L21AI baton round which in its turn replaced the "rubber bullets" first used in Northern Ireland in 1973.
Its purpose is "to dissuade or prevent a potentially violent person from their intended course of action and thereby neutralise the threat", the Acpo guidelines say.
Baton rounds were developed to deal with rioters, but are used for other purposes
Older rounds were criticised because of the risks of serious injury or death if the target's upper body or head was hit. The AEP has a collapsible nose to minimise these risks, but is in any case to be aimed at the target's belt buckle, so avoiding the more vulnerable parts of the body.
Launched from the Heckler and Koch L104A1 37mm single-shot launcher, the AEP is said to be extremely accurate up to 30m and can be fired further on a weapon with an adjusted sight.
Despite being most associated with the policing of serious riots, baton rounds have been used on a number of occasions in recent years against suspects carrying knives, swords and even firearms. In May a man reported to be brandishing a gun in St Austell, Cornwall was subdued using a baton round.
An incident involving charity worker Simon Murden in Humberside in March 2005 showed the limitations of the baton round. Murden, carrying a sword, was shot dead by police after baton rounds failed to stop him, according to police.
Sock rounds and rubber bullets with fins are commonly used in the US
Indeed, Acpo advises police: "Officers using the AEP should not rely on an immediate incapacitant effect and should always be in a position to consider other tactical actions should the individual continue to pose a threat."
And with the single shot weapons used by the police it can take up to 10 seconds to reload.
Other options: In common use in the US are bean bag rounds and sock rounds.
Bean bag rounds are flat envelopes of fabric containing lead shot, typically fired out of a 12-gauge shotgun. Sock rounds are similar in principle but resemble a ball containing the shot with a fabric tail to stabilise them in flight. The Home Office SDB took the view that neither offered significant advantages over baton rounds and had a number of disadvantages, including insufficient accuracy in the case of bean bag rounds.
Other weapons in common use in the US are fin stabilised rubber projectiles and multi-ball rounds, effectively shotgun rounds delivering rubber balls. In the case of the former, increased danger of damages to eyes and the chest walls means these weapons have not been fully evaluated by the Home Office. In the case of the latter, accuracy is often inadequate.
In use in UK: CS spray and PAVA spray
Both of these chemical irritants are in use in the UK in aerosol form. Once they get in the eyes, the suspect's first reaction is often to double up and attempt to clear their eyes. But even while blinded, there would be no guarantee that a suspect carrying a weapon would still not use it.
And range is short, although longer range devices are in use outside the UK.
More exotic options for incapacitating a suspect include lasers used to cause temporary blindness, and infra-red laser devices used to heat up a suspect's skin from a distance. Millimetre wave devices are also used to heat up a suspect's skin to a depth of a few tenths of a millimetre.
According to the Home Office, the health effects of laser devices on the eyes, and of infra-red devices on the eyes, skin and organs, are not well enough understood.
It has also looked at the use of net launchers and glue guns. Net launchers are available with electrical stun devices and chemical irritants. They cannot be used in confined areas and often have limited range.
Glue guns, intended for use in riots, have been discussed for some years in the US but units might be unwieldy and are significantly dangerous if sticky foam covers the mouth and nose.
Allowed for use by specially-trained non-firearms officers since last year, Tasers have now been used in hundreds of serious incidents.
"A lot of our police officer readers will say it is an invaluable piece of kit," says Chris Herbert, editor of Jane's Police Review.
"The main thing we hear from cops who actually use it is that the red dot is generally enough to subdue people."
But there are drawbacks in some situations.
"If someone's too far away you can't hit them," says Mr Herbert. "There are occasions when with people with mental health problems it doesn't have the desired effect."
The limitations of Tasers and impact rounds mean that firearms officers cannot be told to only consider "less lethal weapons".
"It would be inappropriate for commanders or supervisory officers to attempt to restrict the deployment of an authorised firearms officer to a particular less lethal technology or personal safety tactical option," the Acpo guidance says.
While a firearms officer can choose to use them instead of conventional bullets, it is all down to their discretion. If a suspect has fired or seems about to open fire, the use of conventional firearms may seem the safest path.
John O' Connor, a former Scotland Yard Flying Squad commander, says the most common scenario where firearms officers might be deployed is a domestic incident where a person armed with a knife or other weapon is threatening a relative or carer.
In these circumstances, the firearms officers may not find themselves close to the subject, and therefore a Taser may not be an option. "Unless you are really at close quarters you wouldn't try," says Mr O'Connor.
More exotic weapons may one day provide more alternatives for the conventional firearm, but as of now, the Home Office is not planning trials for any weapon beyond those already in the police arsenal.
Below is a selection of your comments.
As a former Police Firearms officer I believe that short of many police offiers losing their lives in such incidents there are no other alternatives but to shoot a person dead if he or she will not lay down their firearm when ordered to do so, if they fail to lay down their arms they know the consequences of their actions. The Police Officers are not gungho, they are properly trained, if their was any doubt about their ability they would never be authorised to carry a firearm in public. They are protecting their own lives as well as members of the public.
Terry Lansbury, Northampton
Let me get this straight: Your officers have to put their lives on the line for you and then fumble through 3 or 4 options while a criminal is endangering their lives and those of the truly innocent people around them. If the criminal happens to die in the police response, it's the fault of the officer? You don't deserve them. Defend yourselves.
Miguel Moreno, USA
why do the firearms officers always shoot to kill instead of in the case of a person pointing a gun at them shooting them in the arm or hand
Alan, Glasgow, Scotland
A lot of criticism is levelled at the police in instances where people are killed in firearms related instances. Whilst it is true that the Police have a duty to preserve the life of the citizens of this country it must also be pointed out that Police officers are also citizens and they have the right to defend themselves as well. Anyone who choses to endanger the lives of others using a weapon must by now be aware that they leave the Police no other choice than to respond using deadly force. Most people in this country obey the law and do not carry or use weapons. They have a right to be protected from those that do.
Jason Hollman, Derby
I personally believe that if you are going out with a firearm, that you are putting your life in other peoples hands. The firearms police within the UK have a huge task when asked to attend an inncident.If you shoot at someone with a gun, They will shoot back at you. You have crossed the line.
Mr Murray, Kent / UK
I've seen many wild life programmes where a tranquilizer dart has been shot into a Lion or other large mammal, the victim collapsing quite quickly. Surely a human equivalent is possible?