The Sacramento Police Department is putting all sworn officers in the department through less lethal training for bean bag shot guns, pepper ball launchers and impact rounds. Nashelly Chavez The Sacramento Bee
The Sacramento Police Department is putting all sworn officers in the department through less lethal training for bean bag shot guns, pepper ball launchers and impact rounds. Nashelly Chavez The Sacramento Bee

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Can these beanbags save lives? Sacramento Police hope so

By Nashelly Chavez

nchavez@sacbee.com

December 02, 2017 10:52 AM

UPDATED December 02, 2017 06:02 PM

Bob wasn’t putting the knife down.

The remote control robot advanced on a group of Sacramento police officers one Friday afternoon in November, a knife-shaped piece of metal attached to one of its hands.

“Stop right there, don’t come any closer,” one of the patrol officers shouted. “Stop, drop the knife, and put your hands in the air.”

Bob kept coming. So the other officers aimed at him and fired their weapons.

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Had he been human, Bob likely would have survived the shooting, said Linda Matthew, a Sacramento Police Department spokeswoman. That’s because these officers, participating in training at a facility in McClellan Park, were shooting beanbags and foam bullets rather than actual ammunition.

The session was part of a new training regimen for Sacramento police officers teaching them how to use less lethal forms of force.

The move to expand officers’ expertise in the less lethal weapons came earlier this year, when the department was dealing with the community backlash from a number of fatal officer-involved shootings.

Those shootings included the killing of Joseph Mann, a mentally ill black man who was shot by two Sacramento Police Department officers in Del Paso Heights in July 2016. Video footage from police cameras showed Mann ignored multiple directives to drop a knife as he ran through the neighborhood, avoiding police apprehension while doing karate moves. Mann’s family said he had mental health issues and that the officers who fired their weapons, John Tennis and Randy Lozoya, were too quick to squeeze their triggers.

Mann’s father took the issue to court, filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Sacramento and the officers less than a month after the shooting. He settled the lawsuit for $719,000 in September of this year. Mann’s siblings later filed a second lawsuit citing the First Amendment to push for additional information.

More than a year after the shooting, both Tennis and Lozoya have left the department, which has adopted a series of measures to increase transparency. And all officers will soon know how to use a beanbag gunshot and a foam bullet gun. A third less lethal option, a pepper ball gun, is also part of the training.

The department hopes the new tools will help give officers more options when dealing with mentally ill people and armed or potentially aggressive suspects, Matthew said.

“We always take a look at how we’ve responded to calls, what we can do better,” Matthew said. “This is just another option. It puts these options in the hands of our officers so they have something else to use when they go to these calls.”

While the tools are not new to the department, previously only sergeants were trained to use them. That meant supervisors would usually have to rush to the scene of a call after it had already started to use those less lethal options, she said.

Other less lethal weapons already available to all Sacramento Police officers include a stun gun, pepper spray and a baton, though those weapons, which are all worn on an officer’s belt, require them to get closer to suspects in order to properly work, Matthew said. K-9s are also considered as a less lethal tool, but only a small group of officers in the department are paired with canine companions.

All of the department’s patrol officers will also trade in their traditional shotguns for ones that deploy less lethal beanbag rounds, Matthew said, though they will hold onto their traditional rifles. Both rifles and shotguns are generally kept in patrol cars, while officers wear handguns on their belts.

So far, about 200 patrol officers have completed the new city training, which should be finished by all officers at the start of 2018, Matthew said. The foam bullets and pepper balls will be assigned to a person in every police district in the city, per shift, she said.

Tim Davis, union president for the Sacramento Police Department, said while he supports the decision to expand the number of officers trained to use the less lethal weapons, it’s unrealistic to think they’ll always be able to avoid using real bullets.

The guns that fire the foam, beanbag and pepper ball rounds don’t fit on an officer’s tool belt, Davis said. It’s possible that an officer won’t have the time to go back to their patrol car to get one if a situation escalates during a call.

“Just the fact that we have these options doesn’t mean that we won’t have these (fatal) shootings,” he said. “The more time you have to respond to an event, the more opportunity you have to use less lethal force. But some things happen so quickly and evolve so quickly.”

Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County Sheriff’s deputy, lawyer and a use-of-force expert, said it was no surprise to him that the Sacramento Police Department moved to expand its use of less lethal weapons after a series of officer-involved shootings. He saw a similar scenario play out as a patrol officer in San Diego about 15 years ago after local police were involved in a number of fatal shootings.

Statewide, most departments equip their officers with some sort of less lethal weapons, regardless of the department’s size, he said. Electroshock weapons, pepper spray and batons are the more popular of the less lethal options, according to Obayashi. Those belt-worn options are all available to Sacramento police, Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies as well as patrol officers at the Roseville, Davis and West Sacramento police departments.

“You might say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of weapons,’ ” Obayashi said. “But it gives the beat officer more flexibility on what they have at their disposal.”

Obayashi echoed Davis’ concerns, saying that not all situations allow for officers to use the less lethal options. Some supposedly non-lethal weapons can also kill, such as when a foam bullet strikes someone in the head. Still, he said, the tools are worth the investment.

Locally, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department started refitting its shotguns to fire less lethal beanbag rounds instead of regular bullets a few months ago, spokesman Sgt. Shaun Hampton said. The shotguns were underused, as most officers also carry and prefer using rifles, he said.

The department moved to re-purpose the shotgun as an additional less lethal option, a process that will take until about mid-2018, Hampton said. That process will include additional training for deputies to use the new equipment.

A gun that can shoot tear gas rounds and less lethal impact rounds is also supposed to be carried by at least one deputy in each district, he added.

At the Davis Police Department, every sworn officer is trained to use foam bullet guns, though only those out on patrol carry them, said Lt. Paul Doroshov, a department spokesman. The same is true for the West Sacramento Police Department, said Sgt. Roger Kinney.

Both of those agencies are much smaller than the Sacramento Police and Sacramento County Sheriff’s department, with fewer than 80 sworn members each.

Watch Sacramento officers take down man with knife after de-escalating crisis

The Sacramento Police Department released a video on Wednesday showing an actual incident in which its de-escalation training paid off. The department is exploring less lethal options when confronted with dangerous situations. This November 24, 2017, call had officers facing a man with a knife in the 5200 block of Franklin Boulevard.

Sacramento Police Department

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets