Friday, April 27 , 2018, 2:23 am | Fair 48º


Letter to the Editor: The Quickest Possible Fix for Fatal Police Shootings

There’s a very quick fix for the worst possible outcome of a police-citizen confrontation, and it’s been staring us in the face all along.

It’s not political, it’s not procedural, and it’s not tactical.  Thus, if you want to use it to fix racism or any other evil in our society, you’ll have to keep working – and, please, KEEP working, because your work is urgently needed.  Racism, including that of the “dog whistle” variety, is pure, unadulterated evil.

But if you want to save lives, RIGHT NOW, then here’s how you do it.

Issue “snake rounds” to officers on patrol for sidearm ammunition – at least on a trial basis.

For the record, a snake round is a load of shotgun pellets encased in a standard caliber shell casing.  If you search online, Wikipedia lists it under “rat-shot”.  I know it as a “snake round” – it’s the same thing.

Snake rounds are generally used for exactly what the name implies – quickly dispatching a snake at short range, up to about 15 – 20 feet – using a pistol, where the time to take careful aim might compromise the success of the shot.  Coincidentally, this range approximates a typical engagement range during a law enforcement firefight.  Snake rounds have been available for in excess of 100 years.

Snake rounds loaded in the 9 mm brass shells typically used in law enforcement sidearms have devastating stopping power in humans – they penetrate clothing [although not ballistic shields], and produce instantly disabling injuries due to the size of the impact field and the resulting catastrophic pain they produce.  They take the target out of the fight immediately, protecting an officer’s life.

But importantly, they are virtually never lethal, even if the targeted person is hit multiple times.

» The imperfect gas seal around a swarm of individual pellets, even when augmented by wadding, results in lower muzzle velocity than that of the conventional one-piece bullet, whose shape is technically known as an “ogive”.

» Round pellets have very low penetration capabilities in the body, as measured by tests in human tissue simulants used for ballistics research.

» Because of the low mass of each pellet, snake rounds, for all practical purposes, cannot seriously damage major organs or break bones.

» The scaling laws that apply to the small, round projectiles in snake rounds cause them to remain largely intact after penetration, reducing the need to remove tiny bullet fragments during surgery.

» The spherical shape and low ballistic coefficient of the pellets in a snake round cause them to slow down very quickly under air resistance, meaning that danger to unintentional targets from both direct fire and ricochets is reduced practically to zero.

For a major engagement scenario, of course, police would, and should, continue to use the traditional shotguns and / or rifled long guns they now already use.  But for sidearms, it seems like the time for snake rounds arrived long, long ago.

When I attended the Santa Barbara Police Department Citizen Police Academy many years ago, former Deputy Police Chief Jacques McCoy discovered that I was a scientist in the Defense Department community.  We did not know one another, but he surprised me by spontaneously engaging me publicly and vociferously, in front of the class, wondering aloud how on earth the military community had not yet come up with non-lethal weapons with enough stopping power to allow police their well-deserved rights to protect and serve their communities and still make it home alive every day.

It was an excellent question, for which, sadly, I had no satisfactory answer. It was true then, and remains true today, that DoD research into non-lethal weapons is ongoing, but the results have been meager.  It turns out that it’s harder to stop a determined human by non-lethal means than it seems like it should be… we humans are engineered to be practically unstoppable, short of very serious injuries.

This did not satisfy Deputy Chief McCoy, nor should it have – I respect him highly for his views.  We ought to do better, and we should not stop trying until we succeed.

If you think about it, the role of ammunition in law enforcement is so different than its role in either military engagements or in hunting that I’m flabbergasted ammunition for these different uses is even sourced from the same channels.

Military and hunting rounds are designed to stop a dedicated, trained adversary [military] or a wily prey [hunting].  The goal is to kill or maim.  By contrast, the goal of a police round is to restrain a suspect with the LEAST amount of damage to the target.

It’s inconceivable that research into sub-lethal rounds such as a snake round has not been done.  I did a very tentative literature search, however, and did not find any results I felt I could “take to the bank”.  This is needed, and it’s needed NOW.

I’ve spoken to friends from law enforcement about their thoughts on this, and after they think about it for a while, they tend to embrace the idea of at least trying snake rounds.  Note that present day snake rounds might NOT work as intended [stop a target with greatly reduced lethality, while protecting the officer, under most or all circumstances likely to be encountered in police work] – but maybe a redesigned snake round WOULD work – for example, with larger pellets, or maybe a mix of pellet sizes.  Of course, it’s also possible that I’m naïve, and none of this would work.

But I’d like to see if it’s possible.  After losing many people close to me over the years from accidents, maladies, and plain bad luck, I cringe at the thought of even one more law enforcement casualty, whether officer, suspect, or innocent bystander.

Shouldn’t we give snake rounds a shot?

Wayne B. Norris
Santa Barbara

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