From the Oregonian, September 24, 2011
Nearly three months after a Portland police officer mistakenly fired lethal shotgun ammunition from a less-lethal beanbag shotgun, striking and wounding a suspect, the Portland Police Bureau has yet to take any significant steps to prevent a similar mistake from happening.
Yet a review of practices in other police agencies in Oregon and elsewhere, and interviews with firearms experts, suggest there are several changes Portland could make to prevent another mishap.
Some agencies, like Washington County Sheriff’s Office, discontinued the lethal shotgun when it brought in less-lethal beanbag shotguns, concerned about the very mix-up that occurred in Portland.
“When you’ve got two rounds that go into the same gun that do two different things, there’s potential for mistakes,” said Sgt. David Thompson, of the Washington County Sheriff’s office.
When Washington County Sheriff’s Office started using the bean-bag shotgun in 1998, it eliminated the lethal shotgun on patrol, Thompson said.
Seattle police Officer Tom Burns, a co-founder of Critical Research and Training Less Lethal Inc., said training in the last 10 years highly recommends that agencies do not use the same weapon system for less-lethal and lethal ammunition.
“They really stress you dedicate an individual tool to an individual purpose,” Burns said. “Weapons should not be interchangeable.”
Other agencies, such as Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, don’t allow officers to carry both shotguns.
If a Clackamas County deputy carries a standard shotgun and becomes trained in the less-lethal beanbag shotgun, the deputy has to turn in the lethal shotgun and lethal shotgun rounds. “You will not carry lethal and less lethal rounds together,” said Deputy Don Weatherford, a firearms instructor. “It will not be done.”
In Portland, the less-lethal bean-bag — nylon bags filled with lead shot that strike with the intensity of a line-drive baseball — are fired from 12-gauge shotguns whose stocks have been painted bright orange. The less-lethal ammunition is painted yellow and clear.
In contrast, the lethal shotgun rounds, fired out of the fully black 12-gauge shotguns, are red or blue. Yet they still fit the less-lethal shotgun.
A Portland directive says police must only load lethal munitions into the lethal shotgun, and less-lethal rounds into a less-lethal shotgun. Portland police train officers not to carry lethal with less-lethal ammunition.
But the police bureau’s directive simply states that officers are not allowed to carry 12-gauge lethal rounds on “his/her person or utility belt while also carrying a less lethal weapon.”
Portland officers say it’s not uncommon for officers to carry lethal shotgun rounds and bean-bag shotgun rounds in their duty bags. There’s no directive that prevents that, Portland police said.
Firearm experts called that “unacceptable.”
Ronald Scott, who retired in 1998 after more than 25 years as a Massachusetts state trooper and ran the agency’s ballistics sections investigating police shootings, says Portland police should immediately end the practice of ammunition mixing in officers’ duty bags.
“Really, you got to keep the ammunition completely separate,” Scott said. “As far as throwing them in a bag, having them mixed up, that’s absolutely unacceptable.”
In Portland, specific officers are certified to carry the bean-bag shotgun in their patrol cars. At a shift’s start, they check out the less-lethal shotgun from their precinct, but the officers maintain their own ammunition. As they load the less-lethal weapon, they must visually inspect each round, protocol says.On June 30, Portland Officer Dane Reister fired four lethal shotgun rounds – a fifth ejected – from a less-lethal beanbag shotgun, striking William Kyle Monroe.
Monroe, 20, suffered two entry wounds to his left thigh; one of the two a “through and through” shot. Another hit his right gluteal muscle, or buttocks, “with sufficient force to shatter his pelvis, and puncture his bladder, his colon and cause injury to his rectum.” His lawyer said the wounds are expected to cause permanent nerve damage.
Reister had a lethal shotgun and a less-lethal bean-bag shotgun in his patrol car. He grabbed the less-lethal shotgun out of the trunk, witnesses said.
It’s still not clear how Reister, who remains on paid leave, made the error.
“Nobody can speak on it yet,”said Sgt. Pete Simpson, a Portland police spokesman. “The conversation will be based on the outcome of the investigation. We kind of have to wait to see what happened, then look over our practices and determine if there’s a better method, or if this is just an anomaly.”
Simpson said the vendor of the less-lethal beanbag shotgun could not recall a mistake like this happening before.
The district attorney’s office hired a less-lethal firearms expert to review the Reister shooting, and is examining Monroe’s medical records to prepare for grand jury.Last Monday, detective division Cmdr. Ed Brumfield ordered all Central Precinct officers to fill out special reports, asking that they account for where they stored their duty bags the week of the June 30 shooting, what type of ammo they had stored in their bags and how they kept the lethal versus less-lethal rounds, such as in a manufacturer’s box, evidence or plastic bag. The order — which followed an earlier, unsuccessful voluntary request — is to “identify any training and/or performance deficiencies,” Brumfield wrote.
The request revealed the Central Precinct practice of having some officers store duty bags, which hold their ammunition and gear, in the basement of the parking garage at Southwest First Avenue and Jefferson Street, raising security concerns. The location was chosen when Central Precinct absorbed more officers in 2009 and ran out of space.
Several other agencies require their patrol officers to check out both the less-lethal weapon and its ammunition at the start of each shift.
Los Angeles Police, for example, check out less-lethal shotguns to officers, with the less-lethal rounds preloaded onto a sleeve of their prominently marked green less-lethal shotguns.
Salem police said some officers carry both the less-lethal and lethal 12-gauge shotguns, but they’re not allowed to mix the ammunition. They check out the less-lethal ammunition for each shift. “The less-lethal rounds are in a separate carrying case,” Salem Lt. Dave Okada said.
Vancouver Police, like Washington County sheriff’s office, don’t have interchangeable weapons that leave open the possibility of a mix-up. Vancouver carries a less-lethal weapon that fires a rubber projectile; Washington county sheriff’s office four years ago dropped the bean-bag shotgun for a less-lethal firearm that shoots a 40 millimeter foam-baton round.
Burns, of Seattle police, said more agencies are moving away from the beanbag shotgun as it’s less accurate at longer distance. He’d recommend agencies, like Portland, end the two shotgun weapons. “It’s a horrible way to learn a lesson, but sometimes we learn from our biggest mistakes.”
Scott, the retired Massachusetts trooper, said supervisors also should conduct regular inspections.
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, said the current requirement to check each weapon and its ammunition before each shift is critical and must be reinforced in training.
“It’s a very simple fix. You check the ammunition,” he said. “It’s one of those mistakes that shouldn’t happen. It’s certainly preventable.”