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U.S. cops may start using a weapon that shoots a cord to wrap around a person's knees

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A new kind of less-lethal weapon is trying to claim a spot on the belts of American cops. It's called a BolaWrap, and its makers promise it can capture someone without injury. As NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste reports, part of the appeal is how it looks on video.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The BolaWrap is like something out of a comic book. It's a handheld device that shoots out a Kevlar cord weighted with tiny grappling hooks. Here's what that sounds like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wrap, wrap, wrap.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOLAWRAP FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And it's wrapped around his legs.

KASTE: The cord winds itself around the target's knees, making it harder to run or fight as the police come in to cuff him. Seattle police did this demonstration in May as they began to use the device. Chief Adrian Diaz says this may be safer than just going in to grapple with bare hands.

ADRIAN DIAZ: You know, if you're sweeping somebody into the ground, you could potentially find them being injured taking them to the ground. And this actually helps them stop and tries to wrap them up a little bit.

KASTE: Seattle has been trying to reduce how often its officers use force. It's been under federal pressure to do so for years. City Council member Lisa Herbold hopes that the BolaWrap can help to solve a specific kind of challenge in this effort.

LISA HERBOLD: Over and over and over again, it has been identified that we don't have good tools for armed individuals in a behavioral health crisis.

KASTE: Ian Adams is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the BolaWrap.

IAN ADAMS: It's not exactly clear what's the target incident where this is used, right?

KASTE: Adams is a former police officer, now an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, where he studies how cops decide when and how to use force.

ADAMS: Is it before somebody is posing an objective threat? Is it supposed to be used during just foot pursuits as a sort of distance tool? You know, a lot of these questions, I think, still need to be answered.

KASTE: Some of the answers may come from the Los Angeles Police Department which is doing the biggest field test so far. Capt. Christopher Zine commands the training division.

CHRISTOPHER ZINE: It's not an ideal weapon for somebody who's acting aggressive. This is more meant for the individual who's refusing to submit to an arrest or a detention.

KASTE: Almost 400 LAPD officers are now carrying the latest model of BolaWrap. It's been used 15 times so far - 12 of those times effectively, Zine says, though that doesn't necessarily mean they worked perfectly.

ZINE: We have had a couple of incidents already where the device was deployed, and then it didn't fully wrap. But again, the nature of the device being deployed startled the individual and contributed to the individual submitting to arrest or detention.

KASTE: The company that makes the devices, Wrap Technologies, says it has about 23,000 BolaWrap units, quote, "in the field" right now, though it's not clear how many of those were purchased. CEO Kevin Mullins says BolaWraps retail for about $1,300 apiece, and they come with a guarantee.

KEVIN MULLINS: We guarantee an agency will see a 10% reduction in use of force at full deployment over 12 months, or we will buy the devices back.

KASTE: But that's only if the police departments don't count BolaWrap as a use of force. Some of them do. Some don't. These stats matter a lot these days, as do the visuals of these arrests now that almost every encounter ends up on video. That's a major selling point for BolaWrap too. Mullins recalls what he heard a police chief saying recently about another kind of less-lethal weapon - metal batons.

MULLINS: You know, the chief said, look, if you're going to carry this in 2023, and you think if you're going to pull this out, and you're going to hit an individual with it, go ahead and pull the checkbook out because the optics are so horrible.

KASTE: Cops often say that no use of force ever looks good on video no matter how legal or appropriate. But BolaWrap, which is fired from 20 feet away, can come close. The company even posts videos of real-life uses on its YouTube channel, something you wouldn't expect from, say, a pepper spray company.

RUSS HICKS: It's good to see other companies jumping in and trying things that are new.

KASTE: Russ Hicks is a former police academy trainer and a use-of-force consultant. He says if you look at the history of other less-lethal weapons, they have decreased injuries and deaths overall, but they also come with some pitfalls.

HICKS: My 30 years of experience say, hey, this is just a tool on your belt. Your main weapon is your verbal communication 'cause that's the two things where officers get themselves in trouble - they don't have the patience and the overreliance on tools.

KASTE: Just as some cops have been too quick in the past to go to their Tasers, he says they should also now watch out for being too quick to wrap someone even if it looks impressive on video. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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