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Fairfax police swap shotgun rounds for beanbags, part of national shift Olivia Diaz Brooke Wright, a Fairfax County deputy police chief, holds one of the department’s new less-lethal shotguns. (Olivia Diaz/The Washington Post) Save At the Fairfax County Police Department, patrol officers have swapped shotgun ammunition for a new projectile: beanbags. The department said this week that officials took 800 12-gauge shotguns and converted 630 of them to a “less-lethal” option, which will deploy only rounds filled with beanbag material. Brooke Wright, a Fairfax County deputy police chief, said the department’s SWAT team will still carry regular ammunition, but all shotgun shells had been taken from patrol units. Wright said the shotguns now have a bright-orange grip with type that says “less lethal.” “We have to evolve, right?” Wright said. “Not only do we evolve, our training evolves, but our tools should also evolve.” SIG Sauer P320, a popular handgun with police, is firing on its own, victims say An instructor at Fairfax County’s criminal justice academy raised the idea about a year ago of changing all the shotgun rounds to beanbags, Wright said. Recruits would use them often at the academy, she said, adding that those in training preferred the less deadly option in many scenarios. Fairfax County patrol officers will continue to be armed with Glocks loaded with real bullets, Wright said, but there are many scenarios in which an officer would use a less lethal shotgun instead. If a person is armed with a weapon that isn’t a firearm, such as a knife or a bat, a beanbag projectile would allow officers to keep their distance from a suspect but not fire with the same deadly force, she said. In situations where a person was armed with a gun, one officer could point a less lethal shotgun at the person while another officer could be pointing a Glock. Wright said the department had already had beanbag rounds but only deployed them 14 times in the past decade. They were cumbersome to use: Police, she said, had to clear their shotguns of all regular ammunition and double-check to make sure the two different projectiles did not get mixed together. In practice, police found the time it took to use a beanbag round during an incident ineffective, Wright said. Wright said she hopes police will use the option more if the department makes the process more efficient. Fairfax officials sent questions to other large agencies through the Major Cities Chiefs Association last year, and the responses showed that about 62 percent of major cities moved away from shotguns, either by not issuing them or using less-lethal options, she said. Police departments in Toronto and Tucson also have shifted to using less-lethal rounds. Steve Monahan, president of the Fairfax County chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, said Friday that he supported the department’s decision and that certified officers would still be able to carry rifles. “It is important for officers to have several less-lethal tools on their person and in their cruisers,” Monahan said in a statement. “I also believe that these repurposed shotguns will be more utilized as a less-lethal option.” As guns saturate the United States, police turn to the AR-15 The county’s announcement comes after the city of Fairfax stopped using shotgun ammunition in 2019. City Police Sgt. Lisa Gardner said the department only uses shotguns with beanbag rounds. In Arlington, police officers are permitted to carry shotguns but are also provided less-lethal ammunition, according to the department’s manual. Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said he could find only a few scenarios where it would make sense for patrol officers to use shotguns and more examples where less-lethal weapons would be appropriate. He noted that the decisions in Fairfax and elsewhere come at a time when police are facing a lot of scrutiny. “Deadly force has been a huge issue in the country,” he said. “Whatever strategies departments can use to minimize the use of force, that's the direction departments are going in.” Wexler stressed that while less-lethal uses of force are helpful, they do not replace other de-escalation tactics that do not require force altogether. “It shouldn’t be because officers have it, therefore, they should use it,” he said. In Vancouver, a man was killed last year after police shot him with beanbags. In Aurora, Colo., a man filed a federal lawsuit against the police department, alleging that an officer used excessive force in firing a beanbag at his torso, leading to permanent injury and the end of his career. Debates flare at colleges over whether to arm campus police Fairfax County officers are trained to aim less-lethal weapons at people’s extremities rather than their abdomen, in an effort to avoid serious injury, Wright said. But a hit in the wrong area or under the wrong circumstances still carries potential for significant injury, she said. “I mean, anything could be [lethal]. That’s why we call it less lethal,” Wright said. “We don’t call it nonlethal.” She said officials will track how police use this new option and its support by officers and the community. “We’re going to continue to work with the community to meet the expectations, because the expectations have changed,” she said. This story has been updated with further information on Fairfax County officers’ firearms and a statement from Steve Monahan.

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