The Ferguson Police Department is testing a “less-lethal” law enforcement tool this week that could prevent deadly outcomes in some split-second uses of force months after the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr. set off nationwide protests. Five officers in the Missouri department are training with a device called “the Alternative” that shoots a ping-pong-ball-sized projectile with enough force to knock a person down and cause some injury, but not kill, even at close range. If proven successful, it will be introduced to the 55-officer Ferguson force, the Washington Post exclusively reported late Tuesday.
The Alternative is a blaze-orange attachment that can be docked on a standard handgun barrel. The device is not the only less-lethal option for law enforcement agencies – the use of Tasers, bean-bag projectiles, rubber bullets and stun grenades are standard in many police agencies and are often deployed for crowd control and civil unrest scenarios.
Al Eickhoff, assistant chief of the Ferguson police, told the Post he’d begun researching less lethal options about a month after Brown's fatal encounter with now-former Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. Brown, who was unarmed and reportedly struggled with Wilson, was shot multiple times by the cop. Reports that Brown had his hands up in surrender, before Wilson’s fatal shots, set off nationwide protests over police killings of black men and became a focal point of President Barack Obama’s task force on law enforcement practices.
Eickhoff said alternatives to lethal force aren’t a panacea to officer-involved deaths, but most officers would prefer to “save a life, not take a life.” Critics of the device, however, say it “exposes police officers to greater risk,” particularly in the time it would take to affix the Alternative to the standard-issue firearm, Steve Ijames, a former Springfield, Mo., police major and training expert, told the Post.