TORONTO — A type of less-lethal projectile that's gaining popularity among American police forces is now finding its way onto Canadian streets.
Six forces across the country, including the RCMP and Correctional Service Canada, have begun making use of a type of expanding rubber bullet that's designed to incapacitate targets without causing lasting harm.
The manufacturer of the Blunt Impact Projectiles, Security Devices International, said municipal police forces are starting to make use of the technology as well.
Chief Executive Greg Sullivan said the BIPs have been fairly widely deployed among officers in Montreal, while smaller task forces in Toronto, Regina and Saskatoon are also starting to make use of the weapons. Edmonton and Calgary are looking into the possibility of equipping some of their patrol cars with BIP launchers as well, he added.
Sgt. Laurent Gingras of the Montreal police said the force uses the projectiles "very rarely" as part of swat team interventions or at certain public protests, but declined to offer more information. None of the other forces currently using the BIPs immediately responded to a request for comment.
Sullivan said the growing popularity of the bullets is an extension of a trend that's been even more noticeable south of the border, where a spate of high-profile police shootings of African-Americans have lent new potency to long-standing debates on race relations.
While Sullivan said the racial undertones are less pronounced in Canada, he said the nation's police forces still have a pressing need to broaden their arsenal of less-lethal weaponry.
"Dealing with mentally ill people is becoming a huge factor for police," the former officer with the Toronto and Halton forces said in a telephone interview. "... some of these people can become very violent, and there's got to be a way to subdue that without using lethal force."
Police have long had what they considered "non-lethal" weapons at their disposal, including pepper spray, stun guns and beanbag projectiles. But even those weapons have caused deaths, leading to a search for "less-lethal" alternatives.
Canada has had its share of fatal incidents, some of which have gained national notoriety.
When polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died in a terminal at the Vancouver airport after being stunned repeatedly with a Taser, the graphic video depicting the incident touched off a heated debate about the effectiveness of the weapons. The incident ultimately sparked a public inquiry and led to three convictions of perjury against officers who lied during their testimony.
The July 2013 death of Toronto teen Sammy Yatim resulted in second-degree murder charges against an officer. A video capturing the encounter shows the 18-year-old being gunned down on an empty downtown streetcar.
And earlier this year, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director announced it would review the way all of Ontario's police forces handle incidents with the mentally ill.
Sullivan said the BIPs have the potential to reduce the number of run-ins that wind up generating controversial headlines.
The silicone heads of the projectiles do not penetrate the skin, like conventional bullets, but they do cause pain and discomfort.
"It's a bullet with an airbag," Sullivan said. "Once it hits, the head collapses, and what that does is it disperses inertia over a wider part of the body. You're actually hitting more nerve-endings in the surface of the skin causing more pain, but you're not getting that depth and penetration that can be problematic and cause injuries."
While the projectiles are designed to be aimed at a person's limbs, Sullivan said a Canadian force recently had to fire at a person's torso during an encounter that he declined to expand on.
In that case, he said, the shot caused only limited bruising on the suspect's body.
The projectiles, with an average price of $33, carry a variety of payloads, including a powder used in pepper spray, marker rounds used to identify riot agitators and a malodorant that smells like sewage.
The product, however, has its limits. While it could subdue an armed suspect from a distance in a hostage or standoff situation, it probably wouldn't be useful during sudden confrontations, said Toby Wishard, a sheriff in South Dakota.
"This product is not practical to carry on a belt. You'd have to have the time to get it into place; then the opportunity would have to present itself for you to use it," Wishard said. "I look at it as more of a specialized tool."
— With files from the Associated Press
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Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press