Mimesis Law
21 November 2017

Rubber Bullets: Less Lethal for Whom?

December 5, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Amid the national discussion on the use of lethal force by police officers, one Sheriff in Arizona claims he has a solution in the form of a multipurpose non-lethal Russian-made pistol. The pistol, known in Russia, as the pistolet travmatichyeski or Traumatic Pistol, is the Osa M09, the latest incarnation of the Osa PB-4-2 nonlethal pistol. Along with rubber jacketed steel rounds in an 18.5mm cartridge (12 Gauge), the pistol (which resembles a crude version of a pepperbox derringer) is also capable of firing pepper gel, flare, illumination and concussion rounds.

The pistol can also electronically “see” which chambers are empty and fire only a chamber with a round in it rather than cycle through them like a standard revolver. The manufacturer claims it has an effective range of around 90 feet. The pistol is being purchased from Defenzia, a Brazilian company with a contract to manufacture and sell the weapon in the US.

But are these weapons really less lethal? Images from Ferguson Missouri in the days following the Michael Brown killing by a white officer, and more recent reports from the Standing Rock protest in South Dakota, indicate that these weapons have plenty of potential to kill or maim a person for life. In Boston in 2004, a young Red Sox fan was hit in the eye and killed by a round designed to release pepper spray on impact.

The respected medical journal, Lancet, released a study analyzing the Israeli military’s use of Rubber bullets against Palestinians in 2000 and concluded that:

Inaccuracy of rubber bullets and improper aiming and range of use resulted in severe injury and death in a substantial number of people. This ammunition should therefore not be considered a safe method of crowd control.

Like the Taser, which is also supposed to be non-lethal, misuse can result in fatalities or permanent debilitating injuries. If police are trained thinking these weapons are less than lethal, they might be inclined to use them than is deemed necessary for a given situation. There have been enough deaths through the use of Tasers that it is clear they are deadly. Perhaps “non-lethal” should not be used at all to describe these weapons. The nationwide discussion is not just about police killing people with guns, although that’s at the top of the list: It’s about police brutality in general. Plenty of brutality can be distributed with something that is less-likely to kill you than a standard bullet from a gun.

Another question that comes up is just how much room there is on a police officer’s utility belt and consequences for an officer in a deadly encounter should he hesitate as a result of the varying choices of weapons attached there. Police love new toys as much as anyone, but how many is too many?

It is somewhat difficult to get a good impression of what police officers think about less than lethal options other than the Taser. The police-oriented magazines and websites have very few articles about them, and without that, you can’t drop down to the comments section to get much of an impression. The Taser, on the other hand, has a fairly comprehensive presence on the websites, product guides and equipment belts. With Taser International moving into the body-cam market, it seems like the company and its products are unlikely to be phased out by another less-than-lethal alternative any time soon.

Is it really big news that a sheriff in Arizona is outfitting his deputies with a generally untested new type of weapon? Maybe if he’s running for congress and/or reelection as sheriff at the same time. Babeau, no stranger to controversy at all, appears politically savvy enough to jump on the anti-police brutality bandwagon and gain some public support with a less-than-lethal weapon program.

However, his bid to keep his job and his run for a congressional seat both eluded him, and he’s out of a job. No word yet on whether new Pinal County Sheriff Mark lamb will continue the Osa pistol program or drop it.

When interviewed about the purchase of the new weapons, Babeau said of the national concern about police brutality:

This is a national conversation that’s going on, and it’s not going well for law enforcement.

He’s right about that.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • maz
    5 December 2016 at 9:29 pm - Reply

    I seem to recall rubber bullets were originally intended to be fired *not* directly at a person but at the ground, with the intention of their bouncing upward to impact the legs and/or trip the subject. Other than the occasional random bounce or the unapproved use against a sit-down demonstration, there was little risk of a headshot.

    Today, though, such ‘non-lethal’ rounds are deployed in potentially lethal ways. Even the Wasp site referenced in the post shows rubber bullets fired horizontally rather than downward. (The site also shows probability of serious or lethal injuries resulting from head- or bodyshots, with nary a mention of the legs.)

    Of course, the bullets’ original intended targets were massed demonstrators, not individual criminal suspects, so the uncertainty of bounce targeting was less of an issue.

    And then there’s this:

    • Anon
      5 December 2016 at 11:52 pm - Reply

      Yes, impact munitions or baton rounds — originally wood, then rubber-coated deforming bullets — were designed to be skip-fired, as the ricochet angle will always be shallower than the incidence angle (think of skipping rocks across water), likely never getting above shin-level (assuming a flat surface). The impact is roughly on par with taking a PGA tee shot to the body.

      Many modern impact rounds, however are be designed for lower and upper body impact. That seems to be case with the OSA.

      A quick calculation shows the impact is on par with getting hit with a Greg Maddox or Glavin fastball*, which kinda seems like it’s usable for those situations you’d be okay with a cop chucking a baseball or four at a suspect. And it’s useful range seems about 20 feet (according to the Sheriff) — which makes it a good choice against EDPs, but for everyone else, that’s point where you’d already transitioning to a firearm.

      *Having played baseball for 20 years — as a catcher, no less — and been hit by *many, many* such objects, the comparison seems simultaneously unimpressive yet quite potentially dangerous.

  • maz
    6 December 2016 at 8:55 am - Reply

    I guess the point I now realize I didn’t actually make was that when I (and, I assume, other greying members of the public) hear mention of ‘rubber bullets,’ what comes to mind are crowd dispersal baton rounds, which arguably *were* non-lethal and unlikely to cause serious injury. (Although I seem to remember an outraged article in Rolling Stone[1] about a protester who’d lost an eye when such a round took an eccentric bounce.) What I *don’t* ordinarily envision are police officers firing hard rubber pellets at my head.

    It almost seems like bait-and-switch, somehow, appropriating the name of the world’s friendliest munition for something far less cuddly — kind of like Nerf brand squash balls. As a result, when I read of someone killed or blinded by a rubber bullet, I’m more likely to chalk it up to extremely poor luck rather than extremely poor judgement.

    What do you want to bet getting struck with a bean bag round isn’t the immediate jolt of kindergarten joy the name suggests?
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    1. I seem to remember surreptitiously reading it in my lap, hidden beneath a lab table — so I’m thinking 9th grade physics, 1973-74….