Thursday, July 19, 2001

Police to get pepper-ball rifles

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While Cincinnati police face a federal investigation over their use of beanbag projectiles, city officers soon will have a new, nonlethal weapon added to their crowd-control arsenal.

        Police will receive 17 pepper-ball air rifles, which fire a small round ball containing a powerful pepper powder. The balls quickly debilitate their targets upon impact by emitting powder that is breathed into the lungs and stings the eyes.

        The weapon passed its first test with Hamilton County sheriff's deputies this week when they were used to subdue a pit bull and Rottweiller that were threatening officers who were trying to arrest a Northside man in his home.

[photo] Hamilton County Chief Sheriff's Deputy Sean Donavan displays a pepper-ball air rifle, which Cincinnati police will soon add to their nonlethal crowd control arsenal.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Sheriff's officials bought 41 pepper-ball rifles about the time of the April riots but had yet to use them, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Barnett.

        The pepper-ball rifles' advantage over traditional pepper spray is distance. The rifle allows officers to apply the spray from a greater and safer distance — up to 100 feet.

        And unlike beanbag projectiles — which are designed to stun, slow or stop suspects through physical pain — the pepper ball's physical impact is relatively minimal, usually lasting 10 minutes, police officials said.

        “It's a double whammy. It has a dual effect of the kinetic energy of the impact and the impact of the pepper round,” said Cincinnati Police Sgt. Doug Ventre, a SWAT coordinator.

        Sgt. Ventre volunteered to be shot eight times with the pepper rounds as part of the pre-purchase testing.

        “I think they will be extremely effective,” he said of the 17 rifles, which use compressed air to fire the powder balls and cost the city about $25,000.

        The weapon joins officers' options of nonlethal weapons such as batons, chemical spray, electrical Tasers, rubber bullets and beanbag projectiles. Several other Tristate police departments have also bought the new pepper powder weapons.

        On Tuesday, sheriff's deputies tried to arrest Tyrone Alford, 42, of the 3900 block of Borden Street, who was wanted on a felony warrant for owing more than $40,000 in child support. Deputies used the pepper-ball rifle when Mr. Alford refused to leave his home.

        Officers first subdued Mr. Alford's pit bull with pepper balls and then, forcing the door open to the residence, fired the projectiles at his Rottweiller 20 feet down a hallway preparing to attack.

        Both dogs fled after being hit and Mr. Alford was arrested, Mr. Barnett said.

        “The weapon worked well. The dogs are all right,” he said. “A lot of times in the past we would have had no choice but to shoot them with a gun.”

        The new pepper-ball rifles will not, however, replace the city nor county sheriff's use of beanbag rifles. Their alleged misuse after the April funeral of Timothy Thomas is the focus of a federal investigation by protesters who claim officers unfairly fired on them in Over-the-Rhine.

        “The beanbags are still extremely effective,” said Sgt. Ventre, who added that beanbag rounds were a key tool in controlling rioters and protesters during the April unrest.

        The 19-year-old Mr. Thomas' fatal shooting by a Cincinnati police officer on April 7 sparked rioting and protests, some of which continued during the day of Mr. Thomas' funeral.

        The FBI is investigating whether the beanbag shootings violated federal civil rights laws.

        Mr. Barnett said sheriff's officials believe the new weapon is “an excellent choice for crowd dispersal.”

        Officers facing a crowd-control situation can often avoid shooting the pepper rounds directly at individuals by aiming at the ground in front of a crowd so everyone gets a whiff of cayenne pepper.

        “That is usually enough to do the job,” said Mr. Barnett.

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