Willmar Police Department implements immobilizing device designed for non-compliant suspects or people with mental illnesses

·5 min read

Oct. 1—WILLMAR — The BolaWrap less-than-lethal device has been in use by the Willmar Police Department for about a month, according to Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt.

According to the company and Felt, the device seeks to offer officers an opportunity to de-escalate encounters with the public before more powerful force is used.

The device shoots an eight-foot Kevlar cord attached to two small, fish hook-like anchors out of a cartridge powered by a .380 partial charge blank, moving at 513 feet per second and aimed toward a person 10 to 25 feet away.

If deployed correctly under the right circumstances, the cord will wrap around a person's legs or arms, immobilizing the person long enough for law enforcement to take them into custody.

"It fills that gap between verbal commands and handcuffing," Wrap Technologies Master Instructor Mike Kleber said in an April interview for a previous story.

The device is designed for non-compliant suspects or people with mental illnesses, according to the company.

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The department purchased two devices in August and 12 officers have been trained in their use, according to Felt.

Felt said the department decided to not supply everyone with the BolaWrap because of how expensive the device is. It costs about $925 dollars and each cartridge costs $35.

"Realistically, looking at it, there's potentially some good uses but limited uses on it, so if it does turn out to be something that gets used a lot, or there's a lot of successes from it, we can expand on it," Felt said.

According to Felt, the device has been brought out a handful of times during its month-long use in the department but the device itself has not been fired.

During an April demonstration of the BolaWrap at the Law Enforcement Center in Willmar, members of the news media volunteered to have the device used on them.

The device's tether wrapped around fully four of the five times it was deployed on people standing in a stationary position with their arms by their side and feet together.

Felt said in an April interview that the BolaWrap would not be replacing anything at the agency but that his department is always on the lookout for equipment or technologies to protect people.

Effectiveness

Wrap Technologies, the maker of the BolaWrap, is currently facing a lawsuit filed by investors in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California for allegedly violating federal securities laws following public reports of a trial run of the device by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The lawsuit, filed in September 2020, alleges that Wrap Technologies, based in Arizona, made false or misleading statements regarding the device's trial with the Los Angeles Police Department "which demonstrated that the BolaWrap was ineffective, expensive and sparingly used in the field."

The company said the lawsuit is without merit, according to an email from Shannan Siemens, managing director for Mercury, a public strategy firm, who responded to a request to Wrap Technologies for comment about the lawsuit.

City of Los Angeles correspondence said the BolaWrap was used nine times from Feb. 5, 2020, to Aug. 10, 2020, and six of those times were considered effective by the department.

Of those six times, only once did the device fully wrap around a suspect as intended.

The other five uses were still considered effective because no other use of force was deemed necessary to make the arrest.

A Los Angeles Times story published Aug. 25, 2020, said the Los Angeles Police Department extended the pilot program and was working with the company to see if improvements were possible.

Felt said that if the device was found to be unsafe the department would re-evaluate its use.

"We don't have a plan to discontinue them if they aren't used within a certain amount of time ... we figure we'll keep it available," Felt said.

Felt wrote in an April email that while that the Los Angeles pilot run was a small sample size, the failure rate is consistent with the Taser stun gun, which he estimated is effective as intended only 70% of the time.

The psychological aspects of the wrap device, like seeing the laser sight the device emits or the bang from the gunpowder used to deploy the cord, can influence a suspect's behavior, according to Felt.

"The portion (of LAPD's pilot program) I'd focus on the most would be if the suspect was able to be taken into custody without injury and without injury to an officer," Felt wrote.

Kleber, who is also an officer with the Chaska Police Department, said the device would be ineffective against someone in a fighting stance where arms are up and legs are apart.

Kleber said that officers might have to attempt to gain some compliance from a suspect before deploying the tether, like asking a suspect to put their feet together.

"We don't need to be in a rush," Kleber said. "We set it up to our advantage because there are limitations to all tools."

The device has also received criticism from Human Rights Watch senior researcher John Raphling, who wrote that police with more force options will, in turn, use force more frequently and more often against vulnerable communities, including people with mental illnesses.

"Such technological 'fixes' miss a bigger point. Mental health should not be a policing issue. Police are poorly equipped to help people having mental health crises when compared to mental health professionals — another weapon on their tool belt will not change this fact," Raphling wrote.

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