DALLAS — Some Dallas police officers will soon be toting “sponge guns,” weapons aimed at reducing the chances of a deadly officer-involved shooting.
Police booster group Safer Dallas Better Dallas announced Thursday that it plans to raise $250,000 to help pay for more than 100 launchers that shoot sponge pellets. The “less lethal” weapons are meant to disarm and incapacitate someone from up to 100 feet away, police officials said.
Being hit with one of the sponge-tipped bullets is much like being pinged with a baseball or hockey puck. The guns are designed to cause enough pain on impact to force a person to drop a weapon or to the ground without breaking the skin, making it safer for police officers to approach.
“If they get hit in a soft spot, they go down,” said Deputy Chief Jeff Cotner, who oversees the police academy.
The launchers, which will be bright yellow, would be dispersed among patrol officers throughout the city to help respond to incidents involving volatile or mentally ill people. The yellow coloring shows other officers and people in the community that police are trying to use less-lethal force.
The goal is to put as much space as possible between responding officers and a suspect who might be holding a weapon, such as a knife or screwdriver. Other less-lethal weapons, like Tasers, require that officers be within 21 feet of a person, making it more likely that an officer might have to use a gun.
“As a Dallas police officer, we all value the preservation of life,” Cotner said.
The last fatal police shooting in Dallas was in September. Two officers shot and killed 24-year-old Gerardo Ramirez, who was armed with a semi-automatic gun. Officials said Ramirez was high on drugs and appeared to be trying to “commit suicide by cop.”
The launchers cost about $800 apiece and could be in the city by late summer. The department expects to start out with more than 100 of the weapons before considering adding more, Cotner said.
About 20 other police departments in the U.S. and Canada already are testing the weapons in some form. Many of those departments just provide them to their SWAT units but Dallas officials decided that patrol officers should get them first.
Critics of the launchers in other parts of the country have said that the weapons could still be fatal if fired at certain parts of the body, such as the head. And, they say, use of the weapons still doesn’t do anything to eradicate what they say is often a dangerous “shoot first” mentality on the part of law enforcement officials.
Dallas Police Association President Ron Pinkston said the launchers will be a good tool for officers, though it is still unclear how the weapons will be dispersed in the department. Officers also will need to be trained on using the launchers.
“You need to have more less-lethal options available to officers,” Pinkston said.
Safer Dallas Better Dallas board member Spencer Michlin said he believes the community will quickly fund the $225,000 effort. He said the launchers give officers an alternative to using their guns.
“It makes it less likely that an officer will have to kill somebody,” he said.
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