After tense debate among city lawmakers, the Spokane Police Department will be allowed to purchase 100 new PepperBall launchers and ammunition.
The Spokane City Council approved the police department’s request for the less-lethal weapons, which fire paintball-like balls filled with a chemical irritant similar to pepper spray.
But the 6-1 vote was not as lopsided as it seemed, as some members expressed dismay about a lack of progress in local police reform discussions since protests roiled the nation and Spokane in 2020.
Police officials say the PepperBall launchers are urgently needed after police reform adopted by the state legislature earlier this year categorized its foam-tipped bullets and bean bag rounds as military equipment and prohibited.
The department views the less-lethal weapons as a critical tool to help officers avoid using deadly force, but the Spokane City Council has held off on approving the purchase for weeks and raised questions about their use.
Council members heard impassioned testimony from community members who felt the PepperBalls are not as safe as presented, and their purchase would fly in the face of reform efforts. It also heard from several people, including representatives of groups like the Downtown Spokane Partnership, in support of the purchase.
Ultimately, most council members were swayed by the argument that less-lethal weapons were a better option than deadly force.
“It’s not just about crowd control but it’s about situations where there isn’t another choice and you don’t want people to die,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who serves as chair of the Public Safety and Community Health Committee.
As an attorney who has represented victims of police violence, Council President Breean Beggs said that with less-lethal weapons “fewer people will die and be injured.”
“But at the same time I will say it’s not a blank check, and they still have to be used within the law, training and policy,” Beggs said.
Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson had been the most prominent skeptic of the PepperBall purchase on the council. Wilkerson, who is Black, said she reached out to Black officers to discuss PepperBalls and came away convinced they are necessary.
However, Wilkerson implored the police department to facilitate conversations and educate the community about their use.
Councilwoman Kate Burke, the lone member to vote against the proposal, called the city’s police reform efforts “embarrassing and sad.”
“Here we are again giving more money to a force that has not taken any of this very seriously,” Burke said.
The city is not paying for the PepperBalls and ammunition, which total about $68,000. The police department proposed using a portion of state funds allocated to help cities implement this year’s police reform measures.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl has touted the safety record of PepperBalls, which are manufactured by United Tactical Systems. The manufacturer claims their use has never resulted in a death.
PepperBalls can be launched at a range of 60 to 150 feet, which make them more effective at a distance not covered by other less-lethal weapons like pepper spray and stun guns.
Previously, the department had used foam-tipped or bean bag rounds as a less-lethal option at longer range. Unlike those, the PepperBalls are propelled by compressed air, not gunpowder. Upon impact, the powder inside the PepperBall explodes, disorienting the person struck by it.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.