WILLMAR — The Willmar Police Department is currently looking into purchasing a new less-than-lethal device called the BolaWrap that seeks to offer officers an opportunity to de-escalate encounters with the public before more powerful force is used.
The device shoots an eight-foot Kevlar cord attached to two small, fish hook-like anchors out of a cartridge powered by a .380 partial charge blank at 513 feet per second at a person 10 to 25 feet away.
If deployed correctly under the right circumstances, the cord will wrap around a person’s legs or arms, immobilizing the person long enough for law enforcement to take them into custody.
The device is designed for non-compliant suspects or people with mental illnesses, according to the company.
“It fills that gap between verbal commands and handcuffing,” Wrap Technologies Master Instructor Mike Kleber said.
It would cost the department $925 per device and $30 per cartridge, according to Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt.
Felt said the potential purchase would not be replacing anything at the agency but that his department is always on the lookout for equipment or technologies to protect people.
“(The device) could be a useful addition to bring combative people into custody with less chance of injury to both them and officers,” Felt wrote in an email.
During a demonstration Wednesday of the BolaWrap, members of the news media volunteered to have the device used on them.
The device’s tether wrapped around fully four of the five times it was deployed on people standing in a stationary position with their arms by their side and feet together.
Earlier that morning, Willmar Police Department officers and deputies from the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office attended training with Kleber on how to use the device.
"I thought it was interesting seeing the devices and demo up close and in-person. I thought it was helpful for our use-of-force instructors to check out the capabilities, limitations and explore potential uses as an alternative to other types of force that may be needed to safely restrain someone," Felt wrote in an email.
Felt wrote that the department is getting its use-of-force instructors together to discuss whether or not to purchase the device.
"At this point, we don’t see it (for sure) as something that would be issued to each officer but maybe a few devices available to the on-duty teams.," Felt wrote. "As with some of our other less-lethal tools, there are specific areas of use and not all encompassing."
Is it effective?
Wrap Technologies, the maker of the BolaWrap, is currently facing a lawsuit filed by investors in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California for allegedly violating federal securities laws following public reports of a trial run of the device by the Los Angeles Police Department.
The lawsuit, filed in September 2020, alleges that Wrap Technologies, based in Arizona, made false or misleading statements regarding the device’s trial with the Los Angeles Police Department “which demonstrated that the BolaWrap was ineffective, expensive, and sparingly used in the field.”
The company said the lawsuit is without merit, according to an email from Shannan Siemens, managing director for Mercury, a public strategy firm, who responded to a request to Wrap Technologies for comment about the lawsuit.
The Los Angeles Police Department extended a pilot program in August 2020 in order to properly evaluate the device’s effectiveness, according to correspondence between Los Angeles Chief of Police Michel Moore and the city’s Board of Commissioners.
According to Moore's correspondence with the commission, the BolaWrap was used nine times from Feb. 5, 2020, to Aug. 10, 2020, and six of those times were considered effective by the department.
Of those six times, the device fully wrapped around a suspect once as the device is intended to do.
The other five times were still considered effective because no other use of force was deemed necessary to make the arrest.
Of the ineffective times, one suspect wearing a puffy jacket “immediately pulled his arms out of the tether,” one officer missed the suspect with the tether and another tether did not wrap, possibly because the tether hit a fence behind the suspect.
Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Martin Baeza told the commission he remained optimistic about the device and that the department is working with the company to see if any improvements can be made to make the device more effective, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The company has not received any significant complaints about the product from police departments, according to Siemens.
Siemens wrote that there were also "no significant studies to speak of" regarding the device's effectiveness, safety and accuracy.
To ensure accuracy, Siemens wrote that the device emits a green line laser sight designed exclusively for the BolaWrap, according to the company.
That green light is processed by the human eye more effectively than any other color, according to Wrap Technologies, and the green line is more effective than a traditional red dot.
Felt wrote that while that the Los Angeles pilot run is a small sample size, the failure rate is consistent with the Taser stun gun, which he estimated is effective as intended only 70% of the time.
The psychological aspects of the wrap device, like seeing the laser or the bang from the gunpowder, can influence a suspect's behavior, according to Felt.
"The portion (of LAPD's pilot program) I’d focus on the most would be if the suspect was able to be taken into custody without injury and without injury to an officer," Felt wrote.
Kleber, who is also an officer with the Chaska Police Department, said the device would be ineffective against someone in a fighting stance where arms are up and legs are apart.
Kleber said that officers might have to attempt to gain some compliance from a suspect before deploying the tether, like asking a suspect to put their feet together.
“We don’t need to be in a rush,” Kleber said. “We set it up to our advantage because there are limitations to all tools.”
The device has also received criticism from Human Rights Watch senior researcher John Raphling, who wrote that police with more force options will, in turn, use force more frequently and more often against vulnerable communities, including people with mental illnesses.
"Such technological 'fixes' miss a bigger point. Mental health should not be a policing issue. Police are poorly equipped to help people having mental health crises when compared to mental health professionals — another weapon on their tool belt will not change this fact," Raphling wrote.
If the Willmar Police Department does purchase the device, a policy would need to be developed that would cover storage of the device, authorized usage and target areas, arrest procedures and aftercare for an individual subject to deployment of the device, according to Felt.
Felt wrote that the earliest the department would make a decision on purchasing the device would be three to four weeks after receiving feedback and a supervisors' meeting.
The LAPD did not respond to a request for comment about their pilot program before this story was published.