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Miami Beach Police Will Begin Using Bean-Bag Shotguns Instead of Real Ones

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Had Miami Beach Police fired guns at 51-year-old David W. Winesett in December 2016, rather than 2015, he might have survived. Last December, police say, Winesett escaped a halfway house, robbed a bank, and allegedly waved a razor blade at officers before they fired their rifles directly into his chest in broad daylight on Alton Road.

In 2015, those rounds were bullets. But beginning in November, some Miami Beach cops will be firing bean bags.

In a letter to the Miami Beach Commission yesterday, City Manager Jimmy Morales announced that Miami Beach Police will, for the first time in the department's history, distribute 40 "less-than-lethal" bean-bag shotguns throughout the force. The department will begin training deputies the first week of October and will deploy the weapons the following month.

Morales also announced his force would stop using all standard, lethal shotguns permanently.

According to Morales' letter, the change is tied to the growing animosity in many communities of color toward police departments. In Miami-Dade County, one comprehensive 2015 study reported that unarmed black people are 22 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed whites despite the fact that whites outnumber blacks in the population and are statistically as likely to commit crimes.

"More and more, American law enforcement agencies are being scrutinized when deadly force is employed," Morales wrote. "This is true even when the use of force is legal, justified, and consistent with the organization' s policies and training. Recent incidents have resulted in public scrutiny, outcry, and growing rifts — marked by protests and violence — between police departments and the communities they serve."

This appears to be the first time this year that a Miami-Dade County police department has voluntarily altered some of its policies in response to the police-reform protests roiling the nation. However, the bean-bag shotguns are far from a cure-all for police brutality or violence — because only 40 shotguns will be used, most officers will still rely on their standard toolset. The department's other standard use-of-force rules remain unchanged for now.

(Winesett, for example, was shot with a rifle, rather than a shotgun, but a situation such as his could be diffused in the future by firing bean-bags.)

The change is a far cry from Miami Beach PD's last proposed equipment upgrade: an armored-truck transaction with Coral Gables Police that the Department of Defense ultimately stopped.

"The goal in spreading the 40 weapons across the entire 24-hour patrol force is to ensure that at least several officers equipped and trained with this device are on patrol at any given time to respond if needed to disarm and take into custody an emotionally disturbed or dangerous subject who is threatening harm to himself/herself or others," Morales wrote.

A copy of Miami Beach Police's new shotgun policy is attached to the memo:

This Department recognizes and respects the value, integrity and sanctity of each human life. In vesting police officers with the lawful authority to use force to protect the public welfare, a careful balancing of all human interests is required. Therefore, it is the policy of this Department that personnel will use reasonable force when force is used to accomplish lawful objectives, while protecting the lives of the officer or another person. Force in excess of that which is reasonable is prohibited.

The policy then defines "objective reasonableness — "the standard by which officers uses-of-force will be judged" — as follows:

An equation of qualifiers to determine if a law enforcement officer's actions in a particular instance were reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances. Some specific factors to consider are the circumstances unique to the rapidly evolving incident, the severity of the crime, the subject's immediate apparent threat to the officer or others, the level of suspect's resistance, the officer's abilities and training and the facts or circumstances known to the officer at the time of the incident.

The policy also says officers will be permitted to fire their guns only "when the officer, based on objective reasonableness, perceives an imminent threat of physical force against himself/herself, other persons, or if the individual is attempting to harm himself/herself." It adds that firing the weapon is justified "when deescalation is a viable option, to control a dangerous or violent subject when deadly force is justified or attempts to subdue the subject by other methods have been, or will likely be, ineffective in the situation at hand."

Cops "should" give verbal warnings before they fire unless it would be tactically advantageous not to do so, the memo says.

Importantly, the policy says cops cannot fire their weapons when "the subject does not pose or appear to pose an immediate threat of physical force against an officer, other persons, or themselves or is passively resistant to an officer's command(s)," when the subject is in an elevated position and could fall to his or her death, or is pregnant, a child, elderly, or driving a car.

Cops will also be barred from firing on people who've already been handcuffed (unless the cuffed person is attacking an officer).

Though getting shot with a "less-lethal" bean bag is certainly preferable to getting hit with shotgun rounds, there are still some concerns with the technology. One, the rounds still cause bodily harm and can, in rare circumstances, kill people. And two, the guns don't actually solve race-based policing as much as they put boxing gloves around the blows. 

Speaking with Governing magazine in 2015, Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (and a former police officer) said these types of weapons can't just be rolled out without significant changes in training too:

Non-lethal weapons are not easy to deploy; most police don’t know how to use them, or they don’t have them," he said, noting that most non-lethal weapons have to be stored in the trunk of a police cruiser. “In the Ferguson case, they would have been irrelevant.

It will be imperative, then, for Miami Beach Police to ensure these guns don't just sit in an officer's trunk.

Here's the memo in full:

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