Ferguson police are testing new methods of incapacitating suspects — six months after a highly controversial police shooting involving one of their officers.
This week, five instructors for the Missouri city’s police department are training to use a "less lethal" device, called the Alternative, which has enough force to knock a suspect to the ground but not kill him or her.
The Alternative is a small orange device that attaches to the top of a normal handgun and extends a Ping-Pong-ball-sized projectile in front of the muzzle.
After traveling through the barrel, the bullet embeds itself inside the alloy projectile, and the docking unit immediately detaches from the weapon, according to the manufacturer.
This process decreases the bullet's velocity and dampens its impact. The bullet, then, should not pierce a human’s skin and cause the type of internal damage that would kill the person. However, it retains enough blunt force to knock someone over and deliver severe, debilitating pain.
Christian Ellis, founder and CEO of Alternative Ballistics, says Ferguson police reached out to him after an extensive Google search.
“After the Michael Brown shooting, they were very concerned about taking lives and making sure that they are proactive,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News. "These guys are taking it very seriously. They really like the technology, and I think they are doing the right thing by giving their officers more tools so they can deal with deadly force encounters in different ways."
Ellis was in Ferguson training officers to use the technology when the Washington Post broke the news that they were planning to adopt the technology.
California-based manufacturer Alternative Ballistics says the device "represents a critical 'missing link' between lethal force and less lethal force."
As Ellis said, “This product isn’t to be used when the officer’s life is in danger or a civilian’s life is in danger. Obviously if someone has a gun or bomb, the officers have to react. But there are some situations where officers do have the time to make a different option.”
While the Alternative may sound like a good solution for police departments, there could be some unintended risks.
Steven Horwitz, professor of economics at St. Lawrence University, who sometimes applies the laws of economics to situations beyond the realm of finance, fears that this device could result in something economists call a “moral hazard.”
“By insuring officers against the less bad outcome, you are actually encouraging them to engage in riskier behavior,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News.
Horwitz argues that the assumption behind the creation of this device is that one shot with this less damaging bullet is substituting for one shot with a regular bullet. But it might end up substituting the less damaging bullet for no bullets at all.
“It’s certainly possible that this would lead officers to be more likely to use their guns at all in situations where they might not otherwise,” he said.
This concern is similar to the argument that football helmets embolden players to take greater risks with their heads — such as using them as weapons — than they would otherwise, as previously outlined by Horwitz and others. If this is true, helmets counterintuitively exacerbate the very problems of concussions and other head injuries they are intended to address.
Ellis and his colleague Bob Herrmann, a spokesman for Alternative Ballistics, on the other hand, do not buy this line of thinking.
They say that officers will be instructed to use this device only when the occasion calls for it.
“I think they’ll use this device when it’s safe and prudent to use it,” Herrmann said. “It’s designed to be used in a situation where lethal force is justified but may not be the best solution."
Others worry that the few seconds it would take to attach the Alternative could give a suspect the upper hand.
Dan Zimmerman, a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment and managing editor of the Truth About Guns, says that in the heat of the moment, this device could lead to even more problems.
“The biggest problem is that one of the things you never do is point your gun in the direction of anything you are not willing to destroy,” he told Yahoo News, referring to gun expert Jeff Cooper’s four basic rules for firearm safety. “In effect, always point your gun in a safe direction.”
Zimmerman says this device makes it more likely for a cop to put his hand in front of the muzzle. If not well trained, the officer might also have his finger on the trigger, which could result in the loss of his hand, Zimmerman argued.
“You’re talking in the heat of the moment,” he said. “This is a fast-developing situation. It’s an inherently dangerous arrangement.”
Herrmann, however, said that there is no reason for anyone to put their fingers in front of the muzzle.
The Ferguson Police Department, which reportedly intends to distribute the Alternative to all of its officers, found itself at the center of national debates over policing and race relations after then-Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown last August.
A representative for the department was not immediately available for comment.