Bean bags, tasers and spray – Oh my!
In May 2003, police were called to a home in Aspen’s West End where neighbors reported hearing gunshots.It was a pleasant, cloudless, late-spring evening and the sun was dipping toward Shadow Mountain when the sound of police sirens echoed through Aspen, all heading toward the same residence where a woman had stepped out of a parked car and shot a handgun into the air. By the time police arrived she was in the garage.Police surrounded the home and kept a close eye on the garage. From what they could see, the woman was hysterical, waving a gun, threatening to kill herself and firing in the direction of police officers who were trying to assess the situation.It didn’t take long for the officers to decide how to deal with the woman. Loading a 12-gauge shotgun that had a bright orange butt, one officer aimed and fired at the woman.
For a split second, many weren’t sure what had happened. Had she shot herself? The woman had been pointing the gun at her head, but after the loud bang she collapsed, unconscious, and dropped the gun.In fact, police had fired a beanbag round into her side, disarming her with a shock and resulting in a tender bruise the size of a quarter.The beanbag guns and ammo are one weapon in an arsenal of four different “less-lethal weapons” that local police use. The other three are batons, pepper spray and tasers. All are used for the same purpose – obtaining control over a suspect – although they might be used in wildly different scenarios.”We feel it’s really important to have a variety of options – a full tool belt to allow us to react appropriately to any circumstance,” said Loren Ryerson, Aspen police chief.
Generally, cops would prefer to use verbal commands and no force at all, but many situations call for something between voice communication and lethal force. Gaining control of someone to keep them from harming themselves or others hasn’t always worked this way. A sheer lack of choices often left police wondering whether to fire a gun, potentially wounding or even killing a suspect.About 15 years ago a man walked down Main Street in Aspen, waving a gun in the air. Police closed down the streets and surrounded the man, but without beanbag guns, tasers or even pepper spray, there was nothing they could do but wait. Eventually the man got tired, and obeyed verbal instructions to put down the gun and allow himself to be taken into police custody.Less-lethal weapons at the APDThe original less-lethal police weapon was something that many Aspen cops still carry today – a baton that can be aimed at large muscle masses or nerve motor points. These days a baton actually telescopes out with a flick of the wrist, and Police Officer Eric Ross said as soon as a baton is expanded, it generally makes people nervous enough to stop what they’re doing.
In 2003, Aspen Police officers displayed their batons three times, and used a baton just once – to strip a weapon out of a suspect’s hand.It may have been just batons for the APD for a long time, but within the last decade a canister of pepper spray, known by police as OC or Oleoresin Capsicum, came onto the scene. Currently, having pepper spray and/or a baton on your tool belt as an Aspen Police Officer is mandatory, although you don’t have to carry both at the same time.Ross said that a brawl at the Popcorn Wagon about six years ago first inspired police to carry pepper spray. Police had tried to use batons to get the fighters under control, but the suspects were rugby players who were used to pain and impervious to the batons.Pepper spray is as nasty as it sounds – one squirt in the face and the chemical reacts with facial oils body fluids, creating an unbearable burning sensation. People immediately throw their hands over their face and, as Ross describes, their eyes water, their noses begin to run and there is a perceived difficulty breathing. They immediately stop anything they’re doing.
It can take up to an hour to feel comfortable after a shot of pepper spray, so police always get people checked out by medics to make sure that there were no other harmful effects. Five in every 1,000 people have some sort of allergic reactions to OC, Ross said.In 2003, one suspect was threatened with an OC canister – the chemical was never fired at anyone. In the last four years, Ross said, pepper spray has only been deployed once against a person.Beans for bearsFour years ago another less-lethal weapon came into use with the Aspen Police Department, although it was purchased not to use on people but on the local ursine population. Beanbag guns first appeared in the 1960s as a riot-control method, along with things like rubber bullets and even tranquilizer darts.
But in summer 2000, the local bear population ventured into Aspen en masse to dine in local alleys and garbage cans. A drought and an early-summer frost had killed off many of the creatures’ natural food sources, and police wanted a way to discourage bears from Dumpster-diving and breaking into homes.Beanbag guns are actually 12-gauge shotguns with bright orange butts to distinguish them from regular shotguns. The beanbag itself comes in a standard 12-gauge round that weighs 40 grams and can cover 300 feet per second when fired.Beanbags are usually shot at the haunches of a bear in a Dumpster or entering a home. Aspen police are trained and ready to use the weapon on humans, but have only fired once at a person – the suicidal woman in mid-2003.”We would try to warn people – ‘This is a beanbag round, it’s going to hurt, so stop what you’re doing,'” Ross said. “They’re going to think they’ve been shot, and it can cause severe bruising, internal injuries or blood clots.”
Anyone shot with a beanbag round is checked out by medics afterward, to be on the safe side. It’s noteworthy that police don’t call these weapons “nonlethal,” because that would indicate that no one on the receiving end ever dies.Still, these weapons are a much safer bet than just relying on guns.”Having this option gives us a certain peace of mind,” Chief Ryerson said. “No one in this business ever wants to shoot someone and kill them. Having an option that can protect the community, the officer and the suspect is a terrific option to have – it’s invaluable.”High voltage
The final addition to the APD’s less-lethal arsenal is as forbidding as getting pepper-sprayed in the face or shot by a beanbag round, even at close range.Tasers deliver 50,000 volts of energy to a suspect – enough to make their muscles in a certain area contract, bringing the suspects to their knees. Police can either use a cartridge attached to the weapon to shoot fishhook darts at someone up to 21 feet away, or they can simply touch the weapon to someone to deliver a stun-gun-type charge.Once an officer presses the trigger, the electricity automatically cycles for five seconds – enough time for an officer to reach the suspect and get handcuffs ready. But often, Ross said, all police must do is display the taser’s arcing electricity (known as an arc display) or, using a laser pointer on the weapon, demonstrate where the darts would land in order to get a suspect’s attention.In 2003 Aspen police used either the arc display or the laser pointer eight times, and physically stunned suspects with a taser – without using the probes – twice.
Police are required to train with all of these weapons regularly. All are thought to be effective means of stopping suspects from fighting or resisting arrest. And it’s a much easier decision for a cop to use a taser than a handgun.”One of the things that’s different about these intermediate weapons is that they’re not black and white – they’re great for gray areas,” Ross said.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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