The Spokane Police Department wants to purchase dozens of new “less lethal” weapons, but elected leaders have questions.
The Spokane City Council has, for now, stymied police efforts to buy 100 PepperBall launchers and ammunition.
The weapons are akin to a paintball gun, using compressed air to launch a projectile that contains a chemical irritant meant to disorient the person struck by it.
As a consequence of the Legislature’s sweeping police reforms this year, Spokane police officials say the department has been stripped of two of its “less-lethal” tools, including 40 millimeter sponge-tipped bullets and bean bag rounds propelled by a shotgun.
Police say without those tools, officers could be forced to resort more readily to deadly force.
“This vacuum has severely hampered our ability to use things we used to have available to us to avoid having to use deadly force,” Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said.
The funding source for a PepperBall purchase is money allocated to local governments by the Legislature this year to help implement police reforms. Councilmembers, who must sign off on the purchase, have asked if there has been adequate community input on the PepperBall plan.
Adding another wrinkle to the debate, legislators apparently banned certain less-lethal weapons in error. The new law categorizes the bean bags and 40 millimeter sponge rounds as military-grade equipment because they exceed 50 calibers and use gunpowder.
But it was never the Legislature’s intent to ban less-lethal options like bean bag rounds, Sen. Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, told The Spokesman-Review.
“I believe there’s a consensus to address that confusion and clarify that nonlethal means are allowed,” Billig said. “There’s actually other places in the (state law) that police should try to use nonlethal and less-lethal rounds.”
A fix could come as soon as next year, and Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson wondered Monday why the department would push to buy the new weapons if a solution is on the way.
“I feel like we’re rushing when the issue has been acknowledged and there is something in the works to amend it,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson asked police leaders Monday to present to a council committee on PepperBalls, including “the effectiveness of them, or the unintended consequences of using those, also.”
“My concern is how these PepperBalls will be used, when they’ll be used, and so there’s still a lot of consternation about this being one of the tools going forward,” Wilkerson said. “The community has reached out – they would like to have some input.”
The department also hopes to buy 77 new ballistic shields for a total of $145,867.
Both requests are due for a council vote on Monday.
To Meidl, one of the most important features of the PepperBall launchers is their utility at a range of 60 to 150 feet. Prior to the legislature’s reform, the police department relied on its 40 millimeter “sponge” rounds – a plastic bullet capped with a sponge tip – to cover that distance.
Stunguns provide a less-lethal option but are effective only at close range and, in the Spokane Police Department, have proven effective only about 50% to 60% of the time, according to Meidl. Pepper spray, dispensed from a canister, also has a limited range.
The objective of the PepperBall rounds is to stun and irritate a person, allowing police to move in and take them into custody. The powder inside bursts upon impact, causing an effect similar to that of pepper spray.
“This platform gives us the opportunity to use what would be a higher level of force without having to resort to deadly force,” Meidl said.
The 40 millimeter rounds were not used frequently, according to Meidl, but are important.
Meidl points to a situation last year downtown in which a man, who was having a mental health crisis and was armed with a sharp object, began moving toward officers. They fired a 40 millimeter sponge round at him, which stunned him and caused him to drop his weapon, Meidl said.
“If you don’t have another platform to use and this person still has this edged weapon, you only have one option,” Meidl said, referring to deadly force.
Meidl notes that, according to manufacturer United Tactical systems, there have never been any deaths or serious injuries from a PepperBall.
Their deployment, like other less-lethal weapons, has not been without controversy, however, including at protests.
Police in Spokane did not use PepperBalls at the time, but their response to a protest turned riot in May 2020 following the death of George Floyd drew substantial scrutiny, including from councilmembers.
One man, who said he was not taking part in the protests, was struck by a less-lethal round and broke his jaw.
The Spokane Police Ombudsman has been blocked from conducting an independent review of the police department’s response to the protests by the Spokane Police Guild.