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St. Paul officers testing out PepperBall but the nonlethal option has critics

St. Paul Police Senior Cmdr. Kurt Hallstrom demonstrates the PepperBall, which shoots pellets that have a similar effect as pepper spray, in St. Paul, Feb. 6, 2019. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL - St. Paul police officers who encounter someone who is armed with a knife or bat and acting aggressively have a new way to respond.

The police department has begun a pilot program of PepperBall. An officer uses a launcher, which looks like a handgun with orange along the top, to shoot a powder with a similar effect as pepper spray.

“We want to give officers as many options as possible to bring a resolution to a call without having to result in deadly force,” said Senior Cmdr. Kurt Hallstrom, who heads the special operations unit. “It’s not the magic tool that’s going to prevent bad things from happening, but it’s a useful tool with a pretty low level of force.”

While a presidential task force on 21st-century policing recently recommended law enforcement agencies use “less than lethal” technology, PepperBall can be controversial.

Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said she believes St. Paul should focus instead on using trained crisis responders, such as a program in Eugene, Ore., that provides mobile crisis intervention around the clock.

“Instead of putting money into military-style munitions, we need more resources for people experiencing mental health crises, and better training and policies around de-escalation for police,” Nelson said. “So-called less lethal weapons can still kill or seriously harm people.”

St. Paul police say they’re also working on the mental health front.

The department started a mental health unit last year, which has two embedded social workers. The St. Paul mayor and city council earmarked additional funding for this year that will double the unit’s size — they’ll have six officers, plus two additional social workers.

When an officer may use PepperBall

When officers encounter someone armed with a weapon other than a gun and the person won’t drop it, their options have been limited, Hallstrom said.

An officer could use a Taser, but they need to be within 20 feet of the individual and a Taser is only effective about half of the time, according to Hallstrom. Spraying someone with pepper spray may require an officer to get even closer.

PepperBall can be shot at a person from 60 feet away and launched into an area from 150 feet away.

“Time, distance are all things that we encourage our officers to maintain,” Hallstrom said.

The projectile looks like a paintball and is about the size of a marble. Officers will give a warning before using it, when possible, though Hallstrom said sometimes situations unfold quickly.

When a person is struck with the projectile, it releases a pharmaceutical-grade pepper powder, Hallstrom said. The irritant causes people to cough and “makes it uncomfortable for you to want to stay in an environment,” but once you’re out of the area, the effects go away more quickly than if you were sprayed with pepper spray, Hallstrom said.

Police can also shoot PepperBall into a room if someone is barricaded inside or into an area where they’re trying to get people to disperse from a bar fight, for example.

John Thompson, who founded Fight for Justice LLC after his friend Philando Castile was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer, said he asked St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell at the end of last year, “Why is it that the gun seems to be the option of choice out of all the tools on the (officer’s) belt?”

Axtell told him about plans to roll out PepperBall.

“It’s better than what they’re using right now because they’re using live bullets,” Thompson said. “If they use it correctly and you can actually subdue or grab someone you’re trying to arrest, as opposed to shooting them, it’s going in the semi-right direction.”

Officers told to avoid the head

If an officer is shooting PepperBall at an individual, they are instructed to avoid the head, neck, spine and groin, Hallstrom said. He said he has not found fatalities that were “directly linked to the use of PepperBall.”

In New Mexico, an 88-year-old man died after deputies fired a PepperBall gun at him dozens of times.

And in Oklahoma, after jailers shot PepperBall at a 40-year-old man, he died of “agitated delirium due to acute methamphetamine intoxication” with “multiple pepper ball injuries” as a contributing factor, according to the Oklahoman newspaper.

Police use of PepperBall during demonstrations also has been the subject of national attention. But St. Paul police said they will not be using it at protests during the pilot project.

“It might be something we consider down the road, but right now it’s not going to be used to do that,” Hallstrom said.