In an apparent effort to kill fewer people, police departments across the country are investing in what is basically a high-tech lasso designed to automatically restrain suspects without cops having to electrocute or shoot them.
As recently noted by Motherboard, the BolaWrap Remote Restraint device looks a lot like a taser and functions, more or less, like something from a James Bond film. It uses gunpowder to explosively discharge an eight-foot “Kevlar tether” designed to fly through the air and ensnare a suspect with barbed restraints. Also referred to as “remote handcuffs,” it allegedly works at a distance of 10 to 25 feet and is meant to be used on suspects who are “non-compliant.” A user’s manual for the police department in West Plains, Missouri, provides a lot of details on how the device is ostensibly supposed to be used.
Produced by security firm Wrap Technologies, the BolaWrap is specifically marketed as a de-escalation tool and a means by which cops can detain people who appear to be exhibiting a host of issues, such as mental health problems, cognitive disabilities, or suicidal ideations. Wrap CEO Tom Smith recently said his company’s mission statement is “to use technology to end confrontations safely” so that “officers go home safe” and “suspects go home safe.” How likely is it that the product will actually be used like it is intended? And is firing a gunpowder-propelled restraint the best way to handle someone experiencing a mental health crisis?
In Seattle, where the local police department recently green-lit a pilot program for limited “field testing” of the device, Seattle City Council Member Lisa Herbold, chair of the council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee, described the product as a way to save lives: “I am very encouraged by the BolaWrap’s potential to help de-escalate situations and reduce the number of tragic outcomes,” she reportedly said. Amidst the rollout of the pilot, Wrap even released a video to showcase how the tool had been used during an incident in Mountlake Terrace, Washington, just outside Seattle. The video shows a suspect said to be experiencing a “mental crisis,” detained by police using the BolaWrap—which the company says allowed cops to “take him into custody without injury.” Actually, if you watch the whole video, the tether is clearly deployed around the guy’s ankles and he face-plants into cement while a cop jumps on his back, but... you know, I’m sure they meant “uninjured” in a relative sense.
Motherboard notes that, in Buffalo, New York, a Black transgender woman was recently zapped with the BolaWrap by area cops when they “perceived [her] as having a mental health crisis.” At the time, local activists complained that police were insensitive to the woman who had been “wrapped” and that no one attempted to “reassure or console the woman, despite the presence of a mental health professional.” Police, however, claimed that the tool did its job—in that it helped manage a situation that otherwise didn’t have a lot of built-in control mechanisms.
It’s particularly disturbing to envision how this tool might be used during protests or incidents involving alleged civil disobedience. The company’s website lists “Riot control” as one particular use for the “Wrap,” implying that cops could basically treat protesters like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, should they feel it’s necessary.
Whether it’s an effective tool to save lives or just another way for cops to arbitrarily terrorize people and humiliate the poor remains to be seen, though police departments have been buying BolaWraps up with a gusto. Wrap claims that “230 police agencies, representing 46 states, throughout the United States” are currently “carrying the BolaWrap.” Late last year, the company announced a bevy of new orders from law enforcement agencies throughout the country, including in Ohio, Indiana, Texas, and Michigan. On Friday, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it would be extending an ongoing pilot of the BolaWrap for another year, as it seeks “additional de-escalation tools to help keep our officers and communities safe.”