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.