A 40-millimetre ‘less lethal weapon’ similar to one already seen in police hands on B.C. streets is being pilot-project-tested by RCMP in all provinces except Quebec until May 2019.
It’s an issue that’s causing concern for civil liberties advocates and political activists.
And B.C.’s top elected officials know nothing about it.
The weapon is an addition to the crowd-control arsenals regional police already have.
The device is the 40mm extended range impact weapon (ERIW) for use in general duty policing.
The ERIW uses sponge-tipped rounds in a plastic casing and employ smokeless powder as a propellant.The projectiles are fired from a launcher looking similar to an assault rifle.
“Extended range impact weapons provide increased distance from which police officers can respond to a subject who may be intent on harming themselves or others,” said RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Annie Linteau. “This increased distance allows police officers, when tactically feasible, more time to attempt de-escalation.”
Linteau said specialized RCMP units such emergency response teams and tactical troops currently use ERIWs.
“Lethal force would be the use of a firearm when there is a fear of grievous bodily harm or death,” Linteau said.
She said the weapon can be used at a distance while a pepper spray or conducted energy weapon such as a Taser could be used when a subject and officer are closer together.
A similar weapon was used to take down a man in Burnaby in April. The subject was not injured.
That weapon Linteau described is different from one RCMP said they are also testing.
One of those weapons fell from an Emergency Response Team vehicle near the Golden Ears Bridge connecting Pitt Meadows and Langley in July 2017.
That weapon is not part of the ERIW pilot, Linteau confirmed.
Asked if the Vancouver Police Department was using ERIWs, Const. Jason Doucette said the VPD uses several ERIWs.
“Our Emergency Response Team (ERT) have the ARWEN 37mm multi-launcher and have had it since the early 1990s. Specific members of our Public Safety Unit began using the Penn Arms 40mm single shot launcher in the year leading up to the 2010 Olympics.
According to the Elite UK Forces website, the Arwen 37 Launcher is a 5-shot anti-riot weapon used by police around the world as well as the elite British Special Air Services in a counter-terrorism role.
Firing 37mm projectiles, such as plastic baton rounds and tear gas canisters, the Arwen is used by law enforcement agencies around the world. The Special Air Service use the Arwen 37 in the counter-terrorism role. A skilled operator could very quickly fill a target building with tear gas, incapacitating all inside, giving the SAS entry teams a vital advantage.
The site says the Arwen can fire rounds is made of composite plastic, long- and short-range tear gas, smoke screens and rounds to penetrate doors, windows, light bodywork, etc. before delivering their payload of CN/CS gas inside.
And, Doucette said, “We have been training select patrol officers with the Remington 870P 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. It deploys less lethal defence technology 12 gauge drag stabilization round and has been in use by the VPD since the early 2000s.”
A San Diego Police Department July 2017 memo on ERIWs said the weapons should not be fired from less than 10 feet and should target the lower abdominal region and below.
“Generally, the head, neck, thorax, heart, and spine area should not be targeted,” the memo said. “If additional shots are required, they shall be directed to different parts of the body.”
It also stressed officers should ensure a target who is hit by an ERIW projective should be taken to a medical facility.
B.C.’s top law enforcement official, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said he’d have to look into the pilot project.
“I’ve never heard of it,” he said.
Liberal Opposition Leader Andrew Wilkinson said communities with local police forces would have oversight on such issues through their police boards.
He looked surprised when told of the weapon.
“I’ve never heard of it,” he said. “I’m surprised Mike Farnworth doesn’t know about the new application by the RCMP because that’s his responsibility.”
B.C. Civil Liberties Association policy director Micheal Vonn said literature suggests use of the ERIW at close range can be fatal.
Venn said the actual consequences of using the weapon can’t be known until it is put into regular use.
“It was the same with Tasers,” she said.
Tasers came under public scrutiny following the RCMP tapering death of Polish immigrant Michael Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport in October 2007.
Of the ERIW, Vancouver political activist Garth Mullins asked, “What could possibly go wrong?”.
He’s been on the front line of numerous protests where police came in with weaponry to de-escalate situations. He’s been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed as well as shot at with rubber bullets at protests including a demonstration at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference riot at UBC in 1997 and riots at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.
“I’ve seen the RCMP escalate quickly with the use of force,’ Mullins said. “The more of these weapons that they have, the more they try to try them out on groups of people.”
And he wonders what ‘less-lethal’ means.
“I suppose it’s less lethal than killing people,” he said. ‘Would you had the choice to be shot by this or a bullet?’ is a very bad choice. I’d rather have the right to protest.”
Mullins also questions why the launchers need to look so threatening.
“Why don’t they paint it orange with a happy face on it if it’s less lethal?” he asked.
Pilot locations in B.C. are being finalized as training continues before the pilot begins, Linteau said, adding that once the pilot project is complete, the force will determine if the ERIW is appropriate for continued use.
“The RCMP continually reviews its policies, procedures and equipment to ensure it is using the most effective practices in law enforcement. This includes researching and on occasion, pilot testing, new technology, if it is deemed to enhance police and public safety.”