Less Lethal is Not Non-lethal 

or,

How to Increase Liability when you thought you were decreasing liability

Less lethal tools have become standard in most every police agency in the US. While the most prolific is probably the Taser, many agencies also employ some sort of extended range impact munition/launcher. In this area, the most common is the 12-gauge less lethal round. But this article isn’t about the types of options available or used, it is about how we refer to them.

I see and hear many law enforcement officials refer to the less lethal genre as “non-lethal”. I have even seen this term laser etched into the cylinder of a 40mm kinetic baton launcher. While we would love to believe any force we use, below the shooting of a gun, will not do great harm to the person impacted (no pun intended), we must remember one crucial fact.

Any force used against a person has the potential to cause serious bodily harm, including death.

I understand the desire and pull to use the term non-lethal when talking about these law enforcement tools. It is the never-ending search to get the public comfortable with police using mechanical force against people for one reason of another. We are constantly trying to sell the public on allowing us to do things that can jeopardize the health and well being of human beings.

But in mislabeling these critical tools, we can increase our liability and jeopardize our ability to utilize them in necessary situations. By calling these tools “non-lethal” even though they may result in life-threatening or ending injuries, we can move the public to restrict or stop their use. As we are seeing in many states, legislators are introducing and passing into laws, bills that greatly restrict law enforcement’s parameters for using force. We are seeing people with no law enforcement knowledge, experiences, or understanding, deciding how law enforcement can or should use its tools. And we must take responsibility for how we mistakenly use or represent those tools.

In Boston, MA several years ago, during a Major League World Series celebration, a young lady was struck in her eye by a FN303, projectile. This caused her to fall from the scaffolding she had climbed. She died as a result of the sound penetrating into her brain and her fall. While we may want to do some mental gymnastics to deflect the cause of her death (she shouldn’t have trespassed on the scaffold, etc.), the improper and unauthorized use of the tools directly led to her death. So, it wasn’t non-lethal.

In NYC, a police officer deployed a Taser on a subject sitting on a wall. The subject fell from the wall, striking their head and dying. Again, the tool was the proximate cause of the person’s death. There have been many others.

My point is that we should be accurate in describing what tools and tactics we use, what we do, and why we do it. Not the how. We should not explain everything about our tools, tactics, and training to the general public. But we want them to understand that if and when we use force, we are doing so with accurate and comprehensive understanding of the possible effects and outcomes of using force against another human being. We definitely don’t want to appear dismissive or minimizing or discounting or the potential harm we could do.

When we show these levels of regard, concern, and consideration for the people we have sworn to take care of and protect, we show that we are taking our role as Guardian, as sheepdog, seriously. We show our flock that our first concern is their safety, whether we are using force to protect them or to stop them from harming others.