The day Sir Lancelot lost to a beanbag

US police are saving lives and winning unlikely friends with a new range of hi-tech, non-lethal weapons, reports John Carlin

Picture the scene. A 6ft 2in ex-Marine charges out of an apartment building towards a group of armed police officers. The giant, a Californian dressed in armour and chain mail, is whirling a huge medieval sword like Excalibur over his head.

The policeman first in line takes aim for the heart, with what looks like a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The mad knight continues his charge. At a range of 14 feet the policeman pulls the trigger. He does not miss his target.

"I call it my Sir Lancelot routine," says Mark Draper, recalling the incident a year on. "The cop was pointing the gun at me, shouting `Stop!' But I kept running. I saw the muzzle flash; I heard the report; I felt the impact on my chest. That same instant I knew was dead."

Mr Draper knew wrong. He recovered consciousness - he cannot remember how long afterwards - in a police cell. No wounds, no blood. Just a bruise and a bad headache.

The policeman had shot him, not with live ammunition, but with a "beanbag" filled with lead pellets, one of the latest of a number of new, non-lethal weapons developed for use by police forces around America by scientists at the Department of Justice in Washington. Certainly, no one could have blamed the police for shooting him, said the 39-year-old Mr Draper.

"The cops were well within their rights to kill me. If it hadn't been for the beanbag I wouldn't be here talking to you.In the circumstances, what the police did was the proper response and a very compassionate one."

The circumstances were that Mr Draper, who at the time was vice-president of a construction engineering business in Fremont, California, was in what he describes as a "dangerously twisted" state. An alcoholic for 15 years, he had just been discharged against his will, heavily doped up with medication, from a rehabilitation centre. He went home, drank two whiskies, "went crazy", and decided he wanted to die.

"But I'm a Catholic and my faith forbids suicide, so I rang up the cops and told them, `Look, I want you to send over some guys and I'll come out with a sword and then I want your guys to kill me.' " The police promptly turned up at his door, but first they tried to negotiate with him. He would not listen.

"Medieval armour is my hobby. I had all this stuff up on the shelves. So I figured: `I'm gonna go out and get shot. Hell, I might as well throw it on.' "

Save for the fancy dress, incidents like this one, which occurred in May last year, are not all that uncommon in America. Typically in the past the police response, if persuasion failed, was to beat the suspect into submission or shoot him. The beanbag device, which is indeed fired from a modified grenade launcher, has already saved the lives of numerous criminals and would-be suicides. Only last week police in Michigan succeeded in stopping a man from shooting himself through the head by knocking him down with a beanbag projectile.

Researchers sponsored by the science and technology branch of the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), are working on a variety of what they call "less-than-lethal weapons" to combat crime. The premise behind the initiative is that law enforcement has not kept up with the times. Most police forces, says David Boyd, head of the NIJ project, "are still equipped much as Wyatt Earp was in the late 19th century and still have the same basic options when confronting a subject".

A paper published last year by the NIJ noted that the British police in Wyatt Earp's time developed some of their more sophisticated investigative techniques after reading Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Life today continues to imitate art. Some of the technology Mr Boyd's team is hoping to make available to police officers in the field conjures images of Spiderman, Star Trek and James Bond's "Q".

Assisted by US military intelligence researchers, the NIJ is developing weapons that fire "ensnarement nets"; thermal guns that dramatically increase a target's body temperature; chemical darts; guns that fire electro-magnetic beams; blinding strobe lights; liquid stun guns; "sticky foams" and "aqueous foams" that can immobilise more than one person at a time.

There are also plans to develop a back-seat air bag for police patrol cars, useful to restrain troublesome prisoners; tyre-deflator systems for use at border checkpoints; and pepper-spray launchers.

Most of these devices will not have been fully tested for practical application until the end of the century, NIJ researchers say. But they are adopting a policy of the sooner the better, because the government has found that both the police and the general public are eager for crime-fighting solutions that do not always require that fire be met with fire.

"Citizens demand that the police employ no more force than warranted, not only to avoid undue permanent injury, but also to preserve their right to due process," Mr Boyd says. "If a technology was available that could subdue an unco-operative suspect without injury, the Los Angeles riots in 1992 might have been avoided, as well as the subsequent loss of 42 lives."

The technology available in May last year not only saved Mr Draper's life, it gave him a new lease on it. He did have to spend two weeks in an insane asylum, and he was given a two-year suspended jail sentence by an indulgent court. But he has been sober ever since and, within six months of his "Sir Lancelot" escapade, he got his job back.

"Everyone, starting with the police, has treated me with great kindness," he said. "I wouldn't be here talking to you today if it hadn't been for that beanbag. But I'll tell you something: the friggin' thing works. It's got a kick like a horse."

A sci-fi arsenal

Sticky Foam: A gun will be developed capable of firing multiple rounds of a sticky, viscous material that immobilises the limbs. Useful to control prison riots.

Aqueous Foam: Converts a room, where (for example) hostages are being held, into a bubble bath. Prevents aural and visual communication between suspects.

Ensnarement Net: Launched like a teargas canister, it will have a range of 100ft, allowing police to trap a fleeing suspect without giving chase or opening fire.

Thermal Gun: Can be fired through a wall, instantly raising a target's body temperature to an immobilising 107F.

Chemical Darts: Like the projectiles used to incapacitate wild animals. The challenge is to find a chemical agent that will knock out, but never kill.

Disorienting Pulsed Light: A flash-bang device that induces temporary blindness. Police officers would wear special goggles, time-synchronised with the flashes.

Liquid Stun Gun: A battery-charged launcher that releases an electrically charged spray.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss