ACLU of Massachusetts Issues Recommendations on Less Lethal Force Policies for Police

May 10, 2005 12:00 am

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BOSTON — Citing safety concerns following the death of Victoria Snelgrove and other fatal incidents arising from the introduction of new police weaponry around the country, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today issued a report setting forth specific recommendations for improved training, use, and monitoring of so-called “less lethal” weapons by the Boston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth.

The death in October 2004 of Ms. Snelgrove, who was killed after being shot in the eye by a Boston Police officer with a pepper spray pellet, led to the appointment of the Stern Commission, led by former U.S. Attorney Donald K. Stern, which was charged with reviewing the incident as well as police policies on less lethal force.

“No police department should be permitted to adopt new weapons technologies without first establishing clear protocols for training, use, and monitoring to avoid needless injury,” said John Reinstein, Legal Director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, who presented the ACLU’s recommendations to the Stern Commission.

“Good police practices don’t get in the way of good law enforcement. In particular, we object to the current practice allowing weapons manufacturers to control the training and use of these new, often lethal, technologies.”

In Massachusetts and around the country, police departments are adopting so-called “less lethal” weapons technology for use in situations in which the use of firearms is neither required nor justified. These weapons are intended to incapacitate or restrain a dangerous or threatening person without causing serious injury in incidents such as hostage rescue, attempted suicide, crowd control, unruly and potentially violent individuals, and domestic disturbances.

In July 2004, Massachusetts became the 49th state to allow law enforcement officials to use electroshock weapons — known as “stun guns” or “Tasers” — without any legislative standards regarding the training in or use of these weapons. Since 2001, more than 100 people have died in the United States after being stunned with a Taser. As a result, police departments nationwide — notably Chicago and the State of New Jersey — have suspended or delayed the use of Tasers, citing safety concerns following fatal incidents.

The ACLU of Massachusetts report addresses a range of less lethal weapons currently available to law enforcement, including chemical sprays, pepper spray, impact projectiles, electroshock weapons, and other devices. It then examines the national legislative and legal landscape regarding less lethal weapons and surveys current less lethal force policies of major metropolitan police departments, including Boston, New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

Specifically, the ACLU’s recommendations cover (1) independent review of weapons systems (2) training; (3) use; (4) post-use practices; and (5) monitoring of less lethal force weapons. The report, Less Lethal Force: Proposed Standards for Massachusetts Law Enforcement Agencies, is online at

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