If you see a Centralia police officer packing a large, intimidating-looking gun, it’s not a grenade launcher. It’s a 40 mm less-lethal round launcher, which the Centralia Police Department equipped every officer with last summer as a safer alternative to bean bag rounds.
Bean bag rounds have the potential to over-penetrate when deployed and can, in the heat of the moment, be confused with live shotgun rounds, said Centralia Chief Stacy Denham.
Similarly, when an officer pulls out a shotgun, it’s not immediately clear to other officers whether they’re using live or less-lethal ammunition.
“If you bring out this platform, we know less-lethal is being deployed,” said Denham.
The wider surface area of the 40 mm rounds and the variety of rounds available — including foam-tipped rounds for occasions where it’s aimed at a person, paint rounds to mark a subject that’s trying to flee, rounds filled with oleoresin or capsicum, and sturdier rounds for SWAT use — makes them safer for all parties in the field, said Centralia Detective Timothy O’Dell.
Officers have not yet had to use the launchers out in the field, as the intimidating look of the launcher has so far been enough on its own to de-escalate situations where it would be used, according to Denham and O’Dell.
“These aren’t coming out and being shot around. Violence or imminent threat of violence is required to deploy these,” said O’Dell.
When firing a less-lethal round, officers are instructed to aim for a “green zone” on the subject’s legs to restrict their movement without causing significant injury.
Bruising and swelling around the impact site are the most common injuries caused by the rounds designed to be aimed at people, said O’Dell.
“The likelihood of causing serious injuries or killing someone is very, very small,” said O’Dell.
Centralia officers are trained to use verbal commands before firing a less-lethal round. In many situations, the threat of pain is enough to convince a subject to comply with officers’ commands.
“It’s one of those tools that if we can deploy this and save one person’s life, it’s worth it,” Denham said.