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Less-lethal sponge rounds a new tactic for Madison police

Less-lethal sponge rounds a new tactic for Madison police

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Less-lethal 40mm launcher

Police officer Chris Masterson loads a Sage 40mm Deuce Launcher, a repurposed grenade launcher, during a demonstration Wednesday of less-lethal weaponry at the Madison Police Department Training Center.

The important role given by Madison police to less-lethal sponge rounds rocketed out of repurposed grenade launchers was showcased last week when the weapon was used to subdue a suicidal 29-year-old man outside his Far West apartment after he confronted officers with the knife he used to slice up his neck.

“That was a perfectly profound example of how something like (the less-lethal weapon) literally saved that young man’s life,” Chief Mike Koval said.

The Sage 40mm Deuce Launchers that fire 0.9-ounce 44mm eXact iMpact sponge rounds as well as numerous shotguns that fire beanbags filled with lead and tasers are the department’s key less-lethal weapons used to control situations that have the potential to become deadly.

But a demonstration of the weapons at the department’s training center on Femrite Drive on the Southeast Side illustrated why the star is the launcher and its sponge rounds that look like souped-up tips of badmitton shuttlecocks.

They are more accurate and can be fired effectively from a much longer (125 feet) and shorter (5 feet) range than the less aerodynamic beanbags (75 feet and 20 feet) that come out of shotguns wobbling like a knuckleball, according to police officer Chris Masterson.

That gives officers distance as well as cover and concealment opportunities that are two of the four principles that make up the department’s policy for de-escalating potentially dangerous situations, he said. The other two principles are use of back-up and use of professional communication.

Thus, the launchers and the sponge rounds are in demand. Paraphrasing a comment made to him by one of his lieutenants, Koval said, “The more we can get these less-lethal rounds in the hands of our officers, the less likely that bad scenarios will continue to deteriorate to the point where the only option left is lethal force.”

Madison police have 10 of the launchers, which means that each district has two of them. Adding more launchers is difficult because they are expensive — the launchers cost the same as a Taser ($1,400) and each sponge rocket costs about the same ($26) as a Taser cartridge ($30) — and they are in demand by law enforcement agencies across the country, according to Masterson. Shotguns that launch the beanbags cost $400 and the beanbags cost $7, he said.

They also get extra scrutiny from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because the launchers can be used to fire grenades, Masterson said.

Masterson said the equivalent of getting struck by a sponge rocket is getting hit by a baseball traveling about 40 mph, or the speed of a ball thrown by a Little Leaguer. Getting hit by a bean bag filled with lead fired by a shotgun is like getting hit by a baseball traveling 45 mph to 50 mph.

The launcher showed its effectiveness on Oct. 9 when it subdued the suicidal man outside his apartment on North High Point Road. Officer Ryan Henderson fired the launcher at the man when he was about 90 feet away from the officers and walking toward them while ignoring orders to drop the knife, according to police spokesman Joel DeSpain. When the sponge round struck his right hip, the man dropped the knife, fell to his side and then dropped straight back and was motionless, he said.

Officers quickly rushed to the man, who was rushed to the hopsital.


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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.

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