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Bean Bag Weapon Is Not Child's Play

Tool in police arsenal proves dangerous

MONDAY, Oct. 1, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A bean bag full of lead pellets that police can use instead of a gun to subdue violent people causes more severe injuries than previously thought.

A study of 40 people in Los Angeles who were hit by bean bags, which are approved for use in all 50 states, found one person was killed and many were far more seriously injured internally than expected, say doctors at the Emergency Medicine Department at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Bean-bag weapons, introduced in 1996, are designed to subdue violent people with less danger of injury for everyone than guns. The bean bag, about 3 inches square, is shot from a shotgun. Because of its size, its force is distributed over a larger area of the body, reducing its impact and possible injury, especially compared to a penetrating bullet.

"But no one knew [its impact]. It was thought to be like being punched, being bruised, and injuries were minimized. But we were seeing injuries that were not consistent with 'being punched,'" says Dr. William Mallon, one of the authors of the study. He works at the jail that is part of the University of Southern California's Medical Center in Los Angeles. Findings appear in the October issue of Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Instead, doctors found severe injuries to the outside of the body as well as to internal organs. One man was killed when a bean bag shot from 25 feet penetrated his chest and lungs.

One of the problems, says study lead author Dr. Dirk deBrito, also at USC, is that the manufacturers -- and thus the police department -- say the bean bag shouldn't be used close up.

"The bean bag shouldn't be used closer than 30 feet, yet officers in the field often confront charging suspects in cramped buildings, which presents them with the impossible choice between using the bean bag closer than recommended or using lethal force with a handgun to protect themselves," says deBrito.

"Our goal [in the study] was to find out the potential for injury and to establish recommendations for community physicians," says fellow researcher Dr. Kathryn Challoner. "These people need a full trauma workup, like CT scans and tests."

"The bean bag is a less-lethal weapon, but not a non-lethal weapon. It is a projectile and has enough power to kill," if it hits someone in a vulnerable place, like the eye or chest, says Alan Flakes, a firearms instructor for the Chicago Police Department,

Although Flakes has trained police officers in how to use the bean bag, and officers are authorized to use it in several areas of the city, including O'Hare Airport, no one yet has used it in Chicago. More commonly used is pepper spray, which can disable a violent person without injury.

"If you have a guy with a Bowie knife threatening to kill himself, you can't shoot to kill, so the bean bag or spray could handle the situation with less harm to him and to the officer," Flakes says.

The study reviewed the injuries to 39 men and one woman who were subdued by bean bags and brought to the hospital. Many were under the influence of drugs or alcohol or were mentally disturbed. Many wielded weapons like machetes, axes or knives, and a number were threatening suicide or asking the officers to kill them.

The researchers found that hospital physicians tended to minimize the injuries, not checking the patients thoroughly enough to find problems. Eventually, injuries to the spleen, heart, lungs and liver, as well as to the eye, stomach, arm and leg were diagnosed.

Also unforeseen, Mallon says, is that one of 10 bean bags broke, releasing lead pellets into body cavities. "If it ruptures, then it causes penetrating injuries."

Mallon and Challoner say they hope the findings will alert physicians to be more vigilant when treating people shot by bean bags.

"These situations are one of the consequences of dealing with a marginalized, criminalized, intoxicated and psychiatrically-ill population. We need to be thorough and compulsive," he says.

What To Do

For an explanation of the problems police face when dealing with violent mentally-ill people, visit Healthmind. The American College of Emergency Physicians describes the non-lethal weapons police use to subdue violent people.

And here's a description and picture of how a bean-bag gun works.

SOURCES: Interviews with Dirk deBrito, M.D., MPH, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California Medical Center in Los Angeles; William Mallon, M.D., associate professor, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Kathryn R. Challoner, M.D., associate professor, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; and Alan Flakes, firearms instructor, Chicago Police Department, Ill.; October 2001 Annals of Emergency Medicine
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