Reminders for Using Less Lethal Resources

Watching the way many police officers utilize less lethal resources these days, I was confused by how so many high-profile tragedies seem to start with the line “less lethal was ineffective.”

My agency embraced less lethal tools and tactics, and we had incredible success with them. I personally used less lethal munitions in patrol and SWAT incidents with great success. In some of these recent incidents I have seen officer wait to use less lethal force until after the subject/suspect begins to assault them. They repeat and repeat commands, with less lethal options presented, but do not act until after the subject begins the fight or flight.

I have also seen escalations where the less lethal option has not worked, or worked within its parameters, and officers then resorted to lethal force. The subject didn’t increase their level of force, the less lethal force did not have the “extreme incapacitation” effect the officer appeared to believe it would have. And just because a form of force isn’t effective, it isn’t justification for an increase in the level of force.

In reviewing some of these recent incidents I came away with what I boiled down to 4 reminders or considerations that I think have been forgotten, lost to antiquity, or never learned.

They are:

1) Less lethal force is used to gain compliance, not to interrupt an attack after it has begun.

2) It can be used much earlier/sooner than many believe.

3) Less lethal force will probably not knock out someone or render them incapacitated.

4) If less lethal force fails the next step may not be lethal force.


Let’s look at them.

1)     When we use less lethal force, it is because the person we need to place handcuffs on will not allow us to do so. It is the opposite of the image all police have tossing their cuffs to a suspect and having the suspect place them on themselves. The suspect has told us by word or fighting stance, that they will not go gently into that good night. So we must use some type of force to gain their compliance. We are not trying to punish the person for not “respecting our authority” or “contempt of cop”, but simply to get them to understand we have a job to do, and they play a part in helping us accomplish our work performance goals.

If we look at the use of less lethal options in this way, I feel that many of the low-level contacts that escalate into high profile tragedies could be avoided. In cases like welfare checks or even low-level investigative contacts, we are looking for the subject/suspect to comply with our desire to talk to them. In arrests and apprehensions, we want the person to submit to being arrested. Either way, we want the person to go along with our program.

2)     With this in mind, I see many incidents where the effort to use force appears to be out of fear of being attacked, or too late in the attack. Less lethal force is not to stop an attack, as much as it is to prevent an attack. Once the attack has started, trying to stop it using a Taser, or even pepper spray is both distracting self-debilitating, and has little use.

Less lethal options, electric, chemical, or impact, are intended to prevent an attack from eve happening. They are intended to motivate compliance through pain, discomfort, or distraction. They should be used prior to an obvious physical assault, not after it has begun. The great thing about less lethal force is it can be almost preemptive. If you give someone a command they are under arrest, and they don’t submit, you don’t need to debate it with them. You can use less lethal force to motivate their cooperation.

The mistake I see in video after video is in the lack of understanding how less lethal force factors into the decision-making process and tactics. It is used too late in the event, to stop an attack instead of to prevent an attack. You want to change the person’s mind from attack preparation to submission. Once the fight is on, you need to fight, not worry about using a Taser, or accurately spraying your OC without spraying yourself or your partners. 

3)     Less lethal force is intended to gain compliance, not replace the officer as the means to effectively subdue and apprehend the suspect. I see many events where it appears the officer believed the less lethal force would do the work for them. If I just tase this person, they will be rendered semi-conscious, or fully unconscious It works like that in the movies. They got pepper sprayed in the academy or training and spent two days complaining how bad the pepper spray hurt. But in the heat of the moment, a suspect or subject isn’t thinking the same way the officer thought during a self-induced training panic.

Officer must remember a Taser only causes a muscular disruption for 5 seconds, no more. The effects are either 100% or 0%, no in-between. No groggy, incoherent phase. Pepper spray may or may not cause the person to cough, have trouble breathing, or affect their vision. If the person is attacking, they will also be less perceptible to those inputs. Meaning, they are is total self-preservation mode, and the “motivation” will need to be more “impactful”.

Less lethal force, again, is intended to motivate a person to clear and self-beneficial thought. Its window of opportunity is prior to a person kicking into fight or flight. Once they have moved there, it will take much more force to convince them to stop fighting or stop running.

4)    Even though the less lethal force doesn’t work to stop the person, the next step may not be lethal force. The force continuum isn’t truly a step increase paradigm. It doesn’t work that “if less lethal force doesn’t stop the person, lethal force is the next, inevitable step.” You may just need to use physical force, in a word, fight.

I see incidents where officers wrongly move to lethal force immediately upon seeing the failure or their incorrect attempt to use less lethal force. Just because a person isn’t maximally affected by your taser doesn’t mean you get to shoot them. If they are unarmed, an infective tasing doesn’t show their superhuman strength that can only be countered by a bullet, or 7. Again, you may just need to fight.

Yes police must apprehend violent people. Yes, this is a dangerous job. But I know that if we consider the use of less lethal tools within the parameters of gaining compliance, not punishment or neutralization, and we realize they should be used as a motivation to cooperate prior to a person entering the unreasonable mindset of fight of flight, we will have greater success in gaining that compliance at a lower level of action.