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After repeated attempts to calm a man who’d become violent after having a seizure one day last December, officers from the Fruitland Police Department in Maryland wanted to try another approach.
“See this device here?” an officer on the scene asks the man’s mother, according to body camera footage. “This will wrap him.”
About a minute later, the officer holds a yellow device about the size of a cellphone in front of him and aims its green laser at the man. With the push of a button, an eight-foot Kevlar cord with several barbs on each end wraps around the man’s knees, and he falls to the ground. Police immediately handcuff him.
“Oh, so it’s not like a Taser?” the man’s mother asks.
“No, it’s quick,” the officer says. “It’s for stuff like this because they don’t mean to hurt anybody.”
The tool the officer deployed that day, developed in 2016 and being adopted by more police departments around the country, is the BolaWrap. Its handheld cartridge shoots the cord at 513 feet per second, which then envelops someone and restricts their movement. It’s quick to train on, easy to reload, and ideally won’t cause any harm to a target or the people around them. It can also be fired at a distance of 10 to 15 feet, and police find the tool particularly useful when dealing with subjects who may be experiencing mental health crises and unaware of their actions.
At least 200 police departments across the country are considering adding the BolaWrap to officers’ utility belts, according to Dr. Tino Posillico, an associate professor of criminal justice at Farmingdale State College SUNY who’s studied the BolaWrap and has seen demonstrations of the device directly from its manufacturer, Wrap Technologies.
“We wanted to find a way for police to avoid using pain compliance and instead use something more like what we see in Hollywood from Batman or Spider-Man to stop perps and not hurt them,” Wrap Technologies CEO Tom Smith, who joined the company in 2019, told VICE News. “You don't have to be a rope expert, like a cowboy is, to be able to stop somebody.”
But like many policing tools, the BolaWrap comes with some risks. The hooks could penetrate someone’s skin, especially if they’re shirtless. And if the officer’s aim is off, the cord could hit them in a vulnerable spot. Product guidelines from Wrap Technologies explicitly say to avoid using the device on targets who are on the move. BolaWraps also run about $900 each, so if the plan is to make them as ubiquitous as Tasers in policing, it’ll cost departments.
“If it’s aimed either deliberately or by accident above elbow level, it could cause problems where now the BolaWrap isn’t going to go around in a nice even and symmetrical way around the body,” Posillico said. “Part of it can wrap around the shoulder and around the neck, or in the worst-case scenario, it can go around the neck completely. And that’s a big problem because now you’re talking about asphyxiation, which puts you back in a lethal situation.”
The Los Angeles Police Department was one of the earliest and largest departments to test the use of BolaWraps with a 180-day pilot program in February 2020. The department approved a 180-day extension last August and extended for another year on Tuesday.
While the LAPD declined to comment on their assessment of the device, a document about the pilot program indicates there was interest in giving officers more forgiving ways to subdue a subject. The department also set up a number of policies regarding the BolaWrap, including barring its use on pregnant women, the elderly, and children younger than 12.
The Fruitland Police Department is a much smaller outfit than their big city counterparts in Los Angeles or Baltimore and oversees a town of just over 5,000 people, 56% of which is white, according to Census records from 2019. In the year since BolaWrap has been part of its arsenal, the device has been used only twice, both times during a mental health crisis.
But for the chief of Fruitland police, the BolaWrap is still a worthwhile investment, regardless of how few opportunities officers have had to use it.
“Not to be overly dramatic, but the analogy I use is how many times does a lifejacket have to be effective to be worth it?” Chief Brian Swafford told VICE News. “If it can prevent you from hurting somebody one time, then yes, it's worth it.”
The Fruitland Police Department tested out the device in early 2020. By March, the department purchased them for 16 of its 20 road officers. Swafford said he had full support from the local city council when the department demonstrated its ability to subdue people without causing harm, but he admitted the device does have limitations. To function as intended and not put anyone’s safety at risk, the BolaWrap can only be used in situations where an officer has time to work through other options like verbal communication and space to actually deploy the tool.
“Throughout history, we've been provided all these tools. We have batons, we have Tasers, we have pepper spray, we have guns, all of these things specifically designed to cause pain,” he said. “We've always had our verbal ability, but sometimes that just doesn't work when you're dealing with somebody who's in some type of mental crisis.”
But during a year of massive criticism of policing tactics, especially in communities of color, several U.S. cities, including Denver and San Francisco, have decided police shouldn’t be responding to mental health crises at all. They’ve handed off the responsibility to paramedics and behavioral science professionals better equipped to deescalate these situations.
As it is, people with mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, according to the mental health nonprofit the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Smith, the CEO of Wrap Technologies, says the BolaWrap was specifically for mental health-related scenarios, as an alternative to use of force. Argentine boleadoras and cowboys who use lassos to safely capture animals inspired him.
“We can train you how to deploy it in less than two minutes, but we spend hours now in training scenarios,” Smith said. “And a lot of that's now coming from the bodycams to say, ‘Look, these are things we're just thinking out, here's how law enforcement is using this in its real-world application on the streets.’ It gives them a good frame of reference.”
And Smith has experience creating usable products for law enforcement: He also co-founded Taser with his brother in the early 1990s. Though the Taser has been widely perceived and marketed as a non-lethal device, it’s been listed as a cause of death for at least 153 people since 2000, according to Reuters. Of the 1,081 people who died after the use of a Taser, 32 percent of them were Black, according to a second Reuters report on the same topic published last year.
Smith told VICE News that BolaWrap is a unique and distinct product.
“I do not view the Taser as a competitor to the BolaWrap,” he said. “Different situations require different tools and options are necessary. It was designed to look and feel like a television remote control—completely different from any weapon and to avoid appearing threatening to a subject.”
And according to experts, we can expect to see the BolaWrap widely used by American police in the future.
“I believe if it's applied as trained and police get good at using it, I could see it being a very helpful, non-lethal way to restrain a suspect,” Posillico said. “It's something that I would anticipate that police will have as one of their non-lethal tools, along with the Taser, at some point.”