Training Faulted in Death by 'Non-Lethal' Weapon

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Boston police recently shot and killed a local college student with a "pepper pellet" gun. The weapon is meant to be a non-lethal means of stopping a suspect. A government probe found the lack of national standards and training for non-lethal weapons contributed to her death. Athena Desai of member station WBUR reports.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In this country, many police departments dealing with crowd control are embracing so-called less-lethal weapons. These include pepper pellets, beanbags and TASERs. But last fall, one of those weapons killed a young woman in Boston. Athena Desai of member station WBUR reports.

ATHENA DESAI reporting:

On the night of October 20th, the Red Sox won the American League pennant. Tens of thousands flooded the area around Fenway Park. Some in the crowd began lighting fires and throwing things at police. Twenty-one-year-old Victoria Snelgrove was waiting to get her car out of a garage.

Mr. DONALD STERN (Former US Attorney): So what you had a is a very narrow street, incredible high volume of noise, people up on the girders and the police are really being outnumbered and outflanked.

DESAI: Former US attorney Donald Stern headed an independent investigation team to figure out what happened next. His report says three policemen began shooting so-called less-lethal pepper pellet guns into the crowd. Although Victoria Snelgrove was not the target of Officer Rochefort Milien's gun, he allegedly shot her in the eye; she died soon after. Stern says the panel's report tried to put that shot into context.

Mr. STERN: We found that Officer Milien did not have the benefit of clear policies that should have been promulgated by the department, and weren't, with respect to the use of the weapon. He had not been fully trained on when to use the weapon.

DESAI: There is no national repository of data on less-lethal weapons, nor are there national testing or evaluation standards for less-lethal weapons. Sid Heal is an expert on less-lethal weapons and a commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He asserts the federal government hasn't put any money into creating a database or setting standards, so police are forced to rely on weapons manufacturers for information and training.

Mr. SID HEAL (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department): Most of them are telling us the truth; they're just not telling us the whole truth. Not a single thing out there provides an advantage without some trade-off. What we're missing is the trade-offs.

DESAI: At the time of the Snelgrove shooting, manufacturer FN Herstal claimed its pepper pellet gun has a low risk of causing serious injury or perforating the skin, but it's training materials caution that a hit above the neck can end in death. Company lawyer James Fox Sr. refused to be recorded, but he claims the product is safe and effective when used by properly trained personnel.

In Oakland, California, the police department is now barred from using a number of less-lethal weapons for crowd control. At a peaceful protest in 2003, police hurt more than 50 people, with injuries ranging from deep bruising to broken hands and permanent disabilities. Attorney Michael Haddad says police should consider using less-lethal force sparingly.

Mr. MICHAEL HADDAD (Attorney): Most people are not going to justify that type of force, and virtually no crowd will justify that kind of force against the crowd itself.

DESAI: Crowd control policies and the banning of various weapons came out of the lawsuit Haddad's clients and others brought forth. But law enforcement advocates worry it may have left police with fewer options. In the end, less-lethal weapons don't mean police use less force, according to Chris Stone, a criminal justice professor at Harvard who worked on the Stern report.

Professor CHRIS STONE (Harvard University): They're sometimes using a less-lethal weapon when they wouldn't have used any weapon at all. That can be a good thing if it's used properly. But the challenge that we found is that the weaponry has gotten ahead of the training, ahead of the policies, ahead of the planning.

DESAI: This report cautions that current problems will only get worse as the technology changes and more companies get into the business. It will be up to Congress to fund programs to assess the safety of less-lethal weapons and set the standards for using them. For NPR News, I'm Athena Desai in Boston.

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