To Protect and Flatten

The weapon du jour of South Florida cops is the Sage SL-6, a gun that shoots big rubber bullets that hurt like hell but don't kill. They hope.

The menacing figure brandishing a knife atop a pile of concrete looks like an outcast from the World Wrestling Federation. His upper body is a mass of muscle, and the gnarly grimace on his face screams, "Come near me and I'll rip your head off." But the words emanating from beneath his thick mustache tell a different story. "Leave me alone," he yells awkwardly, toying with the knife and glaring across the concrete. "I said leave me alone! Get away from me!"

Who is this confused and tragic figure, this sad, suicidal brute in T-shirt and blue jeans? Far from being a washed-up wrestler, the star of this low-budget, straight-to-video action flick is Sgt. Jim Pullen of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's SWAT team, poorly cast as a self-destructive killer holding himself hostage in an unidentified industrial park.

"Come up here and talk to me," he growls at the uniformed cops who are approaching nervously from the far right-hand corner of the TV screen. "Come and take the knife away from me." Instead of gripping his revolver, a fellow officer has rifled through his police bag of "less lethal" goodies and fished out a menacing black contraption that looks like it could take down a stone-throwing youth in Israel's West Bank.

Standing 30 feet away, the officer aims and fires. With a dull pop, a polyurethane projectile is propelled from the weapon's wide barrel and into Pullen's chest. He falls to the ground, momentarily stunned, and is taken into custody without incident.

The Sage SL-6, the $1500 semiautomatic, six-barreled, rubber-bullet gun displayed in this police-training video, is the latest gizmo to be embraced by South Florida police departments seeking a means of bridging the gap between the baton and the bullet. They are designed to help officers avoid incidents like the shooting last spring of Tekelia Wimberly, a 13-year-old girl armed with a knife who took a bullet to the chest after a Hollywood police officer fired a shot that very nearly proved fatal. (The Hollywood police do not have the Sage in their arsenal.)

Around the time of the Wimberly shooting, which triggered a public outcry and an official inquiry, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department purchased a half-dozen Sages. Pullen spent most of the summer training the department's senior officers to use them and recently began sending the weapons out in the trunks of patrol supervisors' cars. Other departments in the area have also jumped on the Sage bandwagon, with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and police departments in West Palm Beach, Coral Gables, and Hialeah all starting to use the weapons, the $30, 4-by-1.5-inch rounds of which strike with the force of a 120-mile-an-hour fastball.

The big black gun falls under the rubric of what were once officially termed "nonlethal" weapons, a catch phrase that mutated to "less lethal" after a handful of deaths from the Sage's predecessors made it apparent to law-enforcement lawyers that the moniker amounted to false advertising. Although a Sage round to the head or the heart can prove fatal, no death has yet been reported. During a full day of training, officers are taught to aim for meaty parts of the body like the thighs and buttocks. "There is a statistical probability that a death can occur," says John Klein, President of Sage International, the Michigan-based company that manufactures the weapon. "The accuracy of our system reduces that probability, but it's not a magic bullet by any means."

Devices like the Sage, designed to take down non-firearm-bearing violent offenders with a minimal risk of death, grew out of the public relations nightmare of increasingly well publicized cases of police brutality and wrongful death. The mechanisms are not intended to replace firearms but merely to offer a less lethal alternative to them. Used properly these items, which include pepper spray and electric stun guns, can help reduce the likelihood of fleeing suspects being shot in the back or of self-destructive types finding a "suicide-by-cop" solution to their problems. In the wrong hands, though, the devices can be easily abused.

"I don't know that fancier weaponry is the answer," says Peter Aiken, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who has handled a number of police-brutality cases. "The best weapon anybody has is their brain. I would rather see that money put into training and increasing salaries." Barry Butin of the local chapter of the ACLU agrees. "Anything is better than the old billy club method," he says. "But we have too many cases of officers using pepper spray improperly, spraying people who just mouth off a little bit." An Amnesty International report on human rights abuses in the United States that was released last week echoes those sentiments. In its section on abuses of "less lethal" weapons, the report blames 60 deaths on police-administered pepper spray and equates electroshock weapons like stun guns with Third World implements of torture.

Still, researchers at government labs and dozens of companies across the country, often encouraged by grants from the Justice Department, are hard at work developing new ways to stun, sting, zap, blind, and ensnare felons. There's the Laser Dazzler, a long, black flashlight with a beam powerful enough to momentarily blind suspects into submission, and its less powerful cousin, the Laser Persuader. Also in development is a projectile that sends a stun gun-like bolt of electricity into the flesh, as well as various offshoots of the rubber-bullet concept, including a stinging flying donut. Already on the market is a rifle rejiggered to turn police officers into Spiderman. The Netgun, a German weapon that has been a struggle for its American distributor to unload, fires a sticky tangle of a net over fleeing felons. "We considered the Netgun," says Pullen, the man in charge of all "nonlethal" weapons training at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. "We thought it was a joke." Equally impractical (and unpopular) is a device that shoots gooey foam that looks like the goop Dan Aykroyd sprayed to zap wayward spirits in Ghostbusters. The foam, which expands to 30 times its original volume as it flies through the air, freezes assailants in their tracks but also leaves a cumbersome mess.

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