When it comes to a cop's gear, there's no substitute for brains

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Frank Schultz
Monday, April 21, 2014

JANESVILLE—When Janesville police tried to arrest a man accused of handcuffing and beating his mother earlier this month, he retreated to the basement and refused to give himself up.

Police could have followed and fought him hand-to-hand, risking injury.

They could have used pepper spray, although that makes a mess and is not the best choice in enclosed spaces.

They might have tried to shock him with their Tasers, although that also could be problematic in close quarters.

What they did was launch Pepperballs into the basement.

Pepperballs use the same stuff in pepper spray encapsulated in plastic balls that break upon impact, spraying pepper powder.

He gave himself up.

The incident points out that police have a wider range of equipment options today than in previous generations. Beat cops also continue to carry those two traditional tools of the trade, a handgun and a club.

The Gazette asked the Janesville Police Department for help in detailing all the devices police carry on their persons, and the department supplied officer Rod Hirsch and Sgt. Brian Vaughn.

“In the old days, it was your nightstick, and then you go hands-on—you wrestle with them,” Vaughn said.

Now, a cop's belt is getting more and more like Batman's belt, and police like to have those options, Vaughn said.

In Janesville, the department—with taxpayer dollars or grants—pays for police equipment. Other departments supply each officer a budget, and the officer buys the equipment.

Officers carry a lot of equipment. Their belts handle most of the load, carrying about 12 pounds. Add four pounds for the bulletproof vest and two pounds for the radio.

That's 18 pounds, more than a heavy bowling ball.

The most notable equipment includes:

A gun. A .40-caliber handgun remains the choice if deadly force is called for—when it's a matter of protecting the officer or others from imminent, life-threatening attack.

Firearms also may be fired to stop someone from committing a violent felony, such as someone who has just shot somebody but doesn't have a gun in his hand. That person may be targeted because of the chance that he could escape and continue to put others at risk, Hise said.

Janesville police are not allowed to shoot from a moving vehicle or at a moving vehicle, contrary to what TV shows show, Hise noted.

Local cops often draw their weapons because of the danger that someone might be armed and willing to kill. But it's rare that a local cop ever fires at a person. Many go their whole careers without doing so.

A video camera. The newest piece of equipment is a small camera, mounted on protective glasses or on a neck collar. Many officers carry them, but there are not enough for each to have a personal camera, Hise said.

The camera continuously saves the previous 30 seconds of audio and video. When the officer presses a button, the camera begins recording with the previous 30 seconds attached to the beginning.

Janesville police record all traffic stops. Other incidents are at the officer's discretion, Vaughn said.

Officers are still getting used to using cameras and sometimes forget to activate them, Vaughn said.

A stun gun. The Taser brand stun gun is the most commonly used device in Janesville to stop someone, Vaughn said.

“It's more effective, easier on the subject. It doesn't have lasting effects, and it's easier on the officer because you don't have to fight with someone,” Vaughn said.

At $800, the Taser is also the most expensive item on a beat cop's belt, second only to the handgun.

The Taser shoots electrically charged barbs that remain connected to the gun with wires. The electricity causes a person's muscles to lock up involuntarily and painfully.

A Taser delivers high voltage, which ensures the charge arrives, but very low amperage, which guards against physical damage, according to the company.

Police around the country have been sued for alleged misuse of the stun guns, but no such lawsuits have come to local prominence.

Taser has faced dozens of wrongful-death lawsuits, but the company won the vast majority of those.

Taser recommended in 2009 that police not shoot people in the chest, if possible, although the company continues to maintain that the gun is safe.

Pepper spray. Officers carry what they call O.C. spray, or pepper spray, but as a group, they have used it only a few times in the past few years, Vaughn said.

Baton, pepper spray, Taser, gun—police must train regularly to keep up on techniques and policies for their use, officers said, and that means a lot more training than past generations of police.

“We train enough so that we usually know what works best under each circumstance,” Vaughn said.

Sponges. The Pepperball launcher and another futuristic device—the 40mm specialty impact munitions launcher—are not standard gear for every officer. But every Janesville police shift commander carries them, so they are available at all times.

The munitions launcher fires a large cartridge that looks like an oversized shotgun shell with a dense, spongy tip.

The sponge round “offers the necessary energy and accuracy to target the large muscle groups of the buttocks, thigh, and even the knees of the subject,” according to the manufacturer. “These areas provide sufficient pain stimulus while greatly reducing serious or life-threatening injuries. However, the size and weight of this rounds makes it the safest of all choices for engaging the abdomen or upper torso of the subject.”

These launchers might sound futuristic, but they've been around about 15 years, officers said.

A rifle. Every patrol officer carries an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. These replace shotguns that used to be standard issue.

Smarts. Perhaps the most ordinary item police use is a notebook.

The most important is good sense and the power of persuasion. In other words, the brain.

“The first thing you learn as a police officer is it's best to talk to people,” Vaughn said. “Otherwise, you're going to be fighting a lot.”

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