This story originally aired on KERA News.
Meet the newest weapon in the Dallas police arsenal: the sponge gun. It launches a hardened foam projectile and gives officers an alternative to shooting a gun with bullets.
Police plan on using them starting late this summer.
The sponge gun doesn’t look soft and squishy; it looks like a grenade launcher. The 3.5-pound device has a 14-inch barrel and shoots hard 40 mm sponge-like rounds.
Dallas Deputy Police Chief Jeff Cottner says this tool could save lives.
“This launcher, has an effective range well over 100 feet,” he says.
Being able to disable a suspect from that distance without shooting them isn’t possible with pepper spray or a Taser. And as discussions about use of force have heated nationally up in the last few years, the Dallas Police Department has sought out other, less lethal alternatives.
Cottner says officers will be trained to fire the sponge round below the head.
“Once the person is impacted they’re going to be down for this very brief period of time that will allow the team to go up and make a safe arrest,” he says.
The idea to use these weapons came from Safer Dallas Better Dallas, a citizen police support group that’s been working with Dallas Police for more than a decade. The group plans to help raise funds to cover the cost of the weapons – they go for about 800 dollars each, plus the cost of each round.
Even though the less lethal alternatives can be expensive, Dallas isn’t the only police department testing them. Dozens of places, from Los Angeles to Ferguson, Missouri to New Zealand are as well.
Tim Dees, a retired police officer and tech columnist for policeone.com, says the public is demanding police departments use less lethal weapons because of recent officer-involved shootings. He says the sponge grenades will provide officers with one more option – but they won’t be a substitute for real guns.
“If you’re confronted with someone who has the immediate capacity to kill you, using a less-lethal weapon in that situation is taking a huge chance,” he says.
“Because in most cases these are one-shot devices, the cycling time is several seconds at least and in the effective range of that, that person can be on top of you before you could reload if it happens to miss or if it just doesn’t work it glances off the person or maybe they’re big enough that it just doesn’t take them down.”
Dees says in the ideal situation — where you have a full team and officers trained to use the sponge gun, this could be helpful. They challenge, he says, is police departments are in the emergency business. The unexpected is the norm, the ideal situation is rare.
The Dallas Police Department will start out with about 100 of these less-lethal guns this summer.