The protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and around the country who have taken to the streets in recent months have no doubt ignited a national debate over the use of police force. Demonstrators said they wanted to bring about policy changes in their communities – and it now appears they’ve scored a victory.
About a month after the shooting death that prompted those protests, Ferguson assistant police chief Al Eickhoff started looking into possible methods of “less lethal” police force. What might that look like? The Ferguson police department, which is made up of about 55 officers, is about to find out.
The officers will be trained this week to use a device called “the Alternative.”
The equipment with which the force is being trained looks like an ordinary handgun already used by law enforcement. But on the end of the barrel it contains a bright orange cap, of sorts, that attaches onto the first projectile as it exits the end of the barrel.
If the first round isn’t enough to subdue the suspect, subsequent rounds stored in the gun could be fired without attaching, meaning that rounds fired after the first shot could still be deadly.
From this video demonstration, it appears as though the orange cap slows the projectile, which the Washington Post describes as the size of a ping pong ball, possibly to minimize the harm caused to whomever or whatever the projectile hits.
According to the Post, the object being fired contains enough force to knock a person down and potentially break the subject’s ribs. The projectile is not designed, however, to kill – even when fired within a relatively close range.
Other non-lethal methods of police force have long been used including, for example, the Taser. But what makes “the Alternative” different from all the rest is the circumstances under which it is designed to be used.
“It gives another option,” Eickhoff told the Post. “I really liked it. . . . You are always looking to save a life, not take a life.”
That means when officers try to protect themselves in potentially life-threatening situations, they have the option of using either a lethal handgun, or the less lethal “Alternative.”
Opponents see the move as less of a solution and more of a liability. Springfield, Missouri, police major and training expert Steve Ijames told the Washington Post that the Alternative “exposes police officers to greater risk.” As Ijames points out, the less lethal method could prove to be more deadly since officers would need extra time to take the orange cap from their belts and attach it to the main weapon component.
The effectiveness of the “Alternative” remains to be seen, even as officers in the embroiled St. Louis, Missouri, suburb begin their training. Christian Ellis, the owner of the company that manufacturers the equipment, admitted to the Post that no human being has ever been shot by the devices with which Ferguson police will soon be training.
Nevertheless, Ellis is optimistic.
“I’ve yet to have one agency or person anywhere in the world who has shot it and not instantly believed in its value,” Ellis said.