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You’ve heard of beanbag shotguns. What about 40 mm launchers?

Police car with lights. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Police agencies’ cache of less-lethal weapons includes Tasers, tear gas canisters and beanbag shotguns. Then there are 40 mm launchers.

Escondido police used 40 mm launchers a week ago when two officers shot a man with what are known as sponge baton rounds. Police said the 29-year-old had threatened a neighbor with a metal pole and didn’t comply when officers instructed him to get on the ground. He was shot in his right hand and left thigh with the rounds.

So what are 40 mm launchers?

They can actually launch different types of projectiles, or rounds. Among them: rounds filled with pepper spray and sponge rounds.

While several local agencies issue beanbag shotguns to patrol officers, others opt for 40 mm launchers and sponge rounds. It appears to be a matter of preference, each option with pros and cons.

“The (sponge) rounds are all foam and plastic, with no metal, and the surface area is larger, so less chance for penetration,” said Escondido police Lt. Suzanne Baeder.

Police officials say sponge rounds — which are a little bigger than golf balls — are more expensive than beanbags, but they can be fired from greater distances. Their precision is another plus.

Police consider less-lethal rounds de-escalation tools — generally used to subdue people who don’t comply with officers’ commands.

“If we are able to use a tool that allows us the least amount of force necessary to safely take somebody into custody or resolve a situation, that’s why we have those tools,” La Mesa police Lt. Kathy Lynch said. The La Mesa Police Department and other the local agencies reserve sponge baton rounds for SWAT officers.

In Escondido, patrol officers got 40 mm launchers and sponge rounds about three years ago, Baeder said.

Police say officers don’t use less-lethal rounds frequently. Patrol officers in Escondido fired 40 mm sponge rounds once in 2020, three times in 2021 and another three times last year, Baeder said.

A relatively new state law has shed light on the use of military gear in policing, including 40 mm launchers. AB 481 requires police agencies to report annually information about its inventory of military gear and how the equipment is used.


© 2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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