St. Paul police are experimenting with a new tool for less-lethal force: guns that fire marble-sized powder rounds that burst upon impact, releasing an irritant that works similar to pepper spray, causing intense coughing and burning in the eyes and nose.
Authorities say the guns, trademarked as PepperBall by manufacturer United Tactical Systems, will help officers address dangerous situations without resorting to their sidearms. Some community members say it’s an unneeded addition that could lead to misuse.
“We have limited options available and this is just another tool to potentially remedy that or bring a peaceful conclusion to that call,” said Cmdr. Kurt Hallstrom, who led the pilot program.
Hallstrom said pepper balls have several advantages to other less lethal options police already employ: It has some of the same effects as pepper spray, but the recovery time is much shorter. It has a greater reach because the powder is airborne versus a liquid spray that can concentrate in one area or be misfired.
It can also be deployed from as far away as 60 feet from a target while a Taser and pepper spray are generally deployed from within 20 feet. The distance provides more time and safety, Hallstrom said.
A two- to three-month pilot program began Feb. 1, much to the surprise of community leaders who had no knowledge of the rollout until they were contacted by the media.
“They should have had some community meetings letting us know what they intended to do,” said St. Paul NAACP President Dianne Binns. “After all, we do pay their salaries.”
Mayor Melvin Carter’s office released a statement saying pepper-ball guns are part of the department’s regular effort to find “tools and resources to help officers stabilize and de-escalate situations.”
The department began looking into pepper-ball guns last February, and received 50 of them courtesy of a $50,000 grant from the St. Paul Police Foundation. Forty of those guns are available for use by officers; 10 are reserved for training or as replacements.
The number of pepper-ball guns on the streets at any given time fluctuates based on who has completed training, which is ongoing.
The guns are being deployed in the Central District and on the downtown beat during the pilot program. Hallstrom expects the guns to go citywide if the program is successful, although it’s unclear how many would be purchased at that point.
St. Paul police are calling the black and orange guns fired by nitrogen cartridges “launchers,” although the weapons meet the statutory definition of a firearm. Police are calling the spherical rounds “projectiles.”
“There’s no explosion,” Hallstrom said of the terminology. “We’re not shooting people; we’re impacting them.”
That’s little reassurance to Todd Gramenz, a leader with Black Lives Matter St. Paul.
“They already have tear gas, they already have batons, they already have guns,” he said. “This is not a way to help build a bridge between police and the community, especially the black community.”
Hallstrom said the department envisions employing the guns in cases where officers are confronted with people who are armed with non-firearm weapons, people who are unarmed but threatening and for potentially dangerous people who are barricaded in a room, building or vehicle.
The department is not allowing use of pepper balls to disperse peaceful demonstrators even when they block traffic, Hallstrom said.
However, he said, “It might be something we consider down the road.”
While police said there have been no fatalities linked to pepper balls, their use is not without controversy. The Dallas police chief called for a review when an officer used pepper balls last year to control crowds protesting the death of Botham Jean, who was fatally shot by then-Dallas officer, Amber Guyger. The officer’s actions were ultimately deemed “consistent” with department policy.
In 2004, a University of California, Davis student was permanently injured when police fired pepper balls to disperse a party and he was struck in the eye by a round.
Teresa Nelson, legal director of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union, expressed concern that the pepper balls could “kill or seriously harm” people.
“We are deeply concerned about the use of these military-style munitions by law enforcement,” she said. “Communities could make better use of their resources by focusing instead on improved training and de-escalation policies for police, and on more support for people experiencing mental health crises.”
Officers are expected to use other means to de-escalate a situation before resorting to force, including pepper balls, and must give a warning and announce that they will deploy pepper balls, Hallstrom said.
Despite her concerns with how it was launched, Binns, who has been exposed to pepper spray and a Taser as part of St. Paul police’s citizens academy, approves of the pepper balls.
“I’m on board with that,” she said, “because I believe you should do everything you can before you kill somebody.”