July 17, 2020
In a YouTube video demonstrating the use of the BolaWrap, a man mimics running away from a police officer — in this case, a second person holding an electronic control device (ECD). The second man presses a button on the device, which then shoots out a cord that wraps around the legs of the man running away. The first man falls, and the crowd — all-white — gasps, then applauds.
That moment is just three seconds of a one-minute video that demonstrates the use of the BolaWrap, a “non-lethal” police weapon that’s been compared to a Spider-man web or a “lasso.” The purpose of the device is to detain a person from a distance or who may be running away without resorting to using a Taser or gun. When an officer presses a button on the hand-held ECD, it shoots out a Kevlar cord that wraps around a person’s ankles, arms, or wherever the officer has aimed.
During a moment of national reckoning with the use of police force and police killings of Black people, advocates of police accountability, reform, and defunding question the efficacy of so-called “non-lethal” weapons. Common examples, like pepper spray, tear gas, Tasers, rubber bullets, batons, and sound cannons can still be harmful on short- and long-term health. Tear gas is technically a chemical weapon banned in war by the 1925 Geneva Protocol.
Wrap Technologies, which produces the BolaWrap, designed the tool with this history of police weaponry in mind, says Judah Meiteles, the company’s senior director of marketing. Meiteles tells Mic that the BolaWrap was designed to intentionally not cause pain; while the device relies on a “fractional charge” to propel the Kevlar cord toward the target individual, the cord itself is mechanical, not electric, he explains.
But that so-called “mechanical” function includes multi-pronged hooks at the ends of the cord itself, which help it stay wrapped around the target. And that “fractional charge” launches the cord at a person at more than 500 feet per second, according to the company’s website; video demonstrations online show that in a split-second, the BolaWrap quite literally wraps people up. Meiteles acknowledges that the BolaWrap’s hooks “could pierce into skin,” but as someone who’s been “wrapped hundreds of times,” he claims that the impact is minimal and “insignificant compared to any other device.”
Wrap Technologies developed the weapon in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department, Meiteles tells Mic. The LAPD began using the BolaWrap in late 2019, initially providing 200 devices for an “extended field trial,” Meiteles says. He says that 150 police agencies around the country currently use the BolaWrap, including 27 countries outside the U.S. The LAPD did not respond to Mic’s request for comment.
Police advocates often argue that when officers encounter an individual, they have to evaluate the situation for potential dangers in a matter of seconds. Theoretically, offices are trained to begin de-escalation tactics using the least forceful method of restraint — say, offering a series of verbal commands. If the officer feels the commands are not effective, they’re then authorized to use the next step up on the so-called use-of-force continuum, which is bodily force. If the officer believes the individual is armed, they may escalate further to deploying projectiles and chemical weapons. Meiteles claims that the BolaWrap gives officers an option that’s lower on the use-of-force continuum than handcuffs and potentially safer for people while still being effective.
Wrap Technologies is marketing the BolaWrap as a tool for de-escalation, specifically in situations where someone may be a threat to themselves or others. “It was actually designed for people with mental health issues,” Meiteles says — though he acknowledges that mental health professionals did not consult on the construction of the device. Still, he argues that because the BolaWrap allows an officer to subdue someone from a distance, and with a tool considered less aggressive than a Taser, it’s effective in this way; Meiteles points to an October 2019 instance in Fresno, California, in which a police officer used a BolaWrap to prevent a man with a knife from advancing toward him. Local news also reported that the officer used a Taser on the individual, though, and it’s unclear as to the order in which the weapons were deployed.
The best way to de-escalate a situation down is the central question. “Communities are clamoring, rightfully so, for de-escalation tactics and tools. The wrap is able to do that — even in its worse case scenario [there’s] minimal harm,” says Richard Ross, a retired police commissioner who was employed by the city of Philadelphia for 30 years. He consults for Wrap Technologies and says that the BolaWrap would have changed how he policed individuals in the last three decades.
To Ross, the BolaWrap is about the “sanctity of life.” It’s a “device that is tantamount to throwing handcuffs on someone from a distance,” he argues.
As with any tool, of course, how the BolaWrap affects a person depends on how the officer chooses to us it. Ross tells Mic that officers are trained to direct the BolaWrap toward a subject’s torso and legs, ostensibly the lowest-impact areas for the cord to strike the body.
But police around the country historically use tools in unintended ways, which is when “non-lethal” weapons become anything but. Minneapolis police blinded a woman with a rubber bullet during a protest over George Floyd’s death, while multiple videos showed New York police driving their vehicles into crowds of protesters. In Seattle, police maced of a child in the face at a protest. Tasers, similarly, are billed as as non-lethal weapons, though police have killed multiple individuals with Tasers.
Meiteles says that in the aftermath of the police brutality protests that took over the country following Floyd’s killing by police, Wrap Technologies has received hundreds of requests for BolaWrap demonstrations. It echoes how Tasers arrived on the scene in 2004 as a response to police killings, with the shock-delivering gun billed to officers as an alternative to actually shooting someone. (Notably, the company that developed the Taser was co-founded by Thomas Smith — the current president of Wrap Technologies.)
No matter what tools police have in their arsenal, though, it’s just as important to consider how— and on whom — officers choose to use them. “While it can be well-intentioned, there’s always this question of unintended consequences,” says Johnny Rice II, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the College of Behavioral Social Sciences at Coppin State University in Baltimore. Rice tells Mic that the over-policing of Black communities and Black men specifically might mean that police could be eager to use the BolaWrap on these individuals when other de-escalation tactics could have been effective instead. Police are also more likely to detain Black people for doing everyday things — like driving a car or walking home.
“Such technological ‘fixes’ miss a bigger point. Mental health should not be a policing issue.”
A lot of the discretion that may be used with other racial [and] ethnic groups … isn’t considered or applied when officers view African Americans as a threat,” Rice tells Mic. There are also contextual issues: To Rice, the BolaWrap “looks like a hog-tie.”
“How will the community interpret that?” he wonders. “Is it gonna be viewed as another way in which we’re being detained as cattle?”
That’s less of a concern to Ross, who is a Black man himself. As a former officer, Ross views the BolaWrap as a “really progressive tool and movement designed to take subjects or suspects into custody without pain.” He tells Mic that the supposed painlessness of the BolaWrap is critical given that it’s intended to be used on individuals suffering from mental health crises — who account for 25% of those killed by police.
As John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in 2018 shortly after the BolaWrap started making its way into police departments: “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.”
Though an increasing number of police departments — 250 by Meiteles’s count — may be requesting the device as protests roil the country, some municipalities are taking steps to defund their police departments, with lawmakers and activists questioning why armed police officers are sent to deal with issues of emotional and mental wellbeing. A popular first step for city councils across the U.S. is to reduce the likelihood that police will respond to a non-emergency 911 mental health call — removing the opportunity for an armed officer to interact with these individuals in the first place.
In any case, adding a Kevlar cord with hooks attached to it to an officer’s belt isn’t really the point. Changing policing, and the fundamental way in which the U.S. approaches these non-emergency situations that are still fraught, is the point. As Rice says: “The utilization of this tool should not be a shortcut to meaningful and intentional conflict resolution skills.”