Colorado police increasingly using BolaWrap to detain people from afar

The man wandered through the dark parking lot shouting unintelligibly as Glenwood Springs police officers trailed him.

He’d been running through traffic and officers wanted to stop him before he got hurt. But the man didn’t heed their commands, body camera footage of the incident shows. After one final warning, the officers deployed the department’s newest tool with an explosive bang.

A Kevlar tether hurtled toward the man and wrapped around his legs. The lassoed man fell to the ground, screaming but uninjured, and police were able to keep him in one place long enough to hand him over to the care of paramedics.

The lassoing device, called a BolaWrap, is a new tool being used by a growing number of Colorado law enforcement agencies to detain non-compliant people without firing a Taser or hitting them. Fifteen departments in the state either use or are training to use the device, which has skyrocketed in popularity in the wake of the 2020 protests against police brutality.

“Now we have a tool to use to de-escalate things very rapidly,” Glenwood Springs police Chief Joseph Deras said.

The BolaWrap shoots a 7-foot-6-inch tether at a person with a bang, just like a gun. That’s because it uses gunpowder, earning it a designation as a firearm by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Kevlar tether then wraps around the target’s legs or arms and small metal fishhooks at the ends of the tether are designed to grab clothing to keep it in place.

The tether shoots out of the handheld device at a speed of 350 mph and can travel up to 25 feet, according to the company.

The goal is to give police a tool to restrain people while keeping their distance and without resorting to devices that inflict pain, like Tasers, said Tom Smith, CEO of Wrap Technologies, the company that sells the device, and a founder of the Taser company.

“Everyone’s been looking for a way to stop someone without hurting them,” Smith said. “It’s not the magic bullet — that doesn’t exist, unfortunately. But you have to have tools in the toolbox.”

The company specifically markets the BolaWrap as a tool to be used in confrontations with unarmed people under the influence or who are experiencing mental health crises.

“Non-compliant subjects in mental crisis and drug-impaired subjects are often incapable of comprehending commands of officers,” the company states on its website. “BolaWrap enables officers to safely and humanely take subjects into custody without injury to get them the help they need.”

The BolaWrap is an improvement over Tasers but will likely further agitate people in crisis, said Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. The bang of the device and the realization of suddenly being confined will not calm someone down, he said.

“It’s way better than shooting or tasing or clubbing people,” Atchity said. “If we could get the cops to give up all their guns and clubs and use only magical spider-web devices, that would be a good step in a better direction. But I think it would be better for police to learn how to better communicate and manage people instead of relying on devices to protect and serve.”

Wrap Technologies started selling the BolaWrap in June 2019 but sales of the device have increased dramatically since widespread protests of police brutality in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Smith said. Wrap Technologies’ stock price tripled between the last week of May 2020 and mid-July 2020 as protests roiled thousands of communities across the country.

“There’s never been as much pressure to change how things are done in policing than in the last 15 months,” Smith said.

The BolaWrap is not risk-free, however. The hooks on the end of the tethers can embed in peoples’ skin, leaving cuts. Police are also advised not to use the device in areas where a person could be seriously injured if they fall. If aimed poorly, it can wrap around a person’s neck. Smith said the company trains users to not shoot above the elbows, but is aware of two incidents where the tether wrapped around a person’s neck. Neither person was injured, he said.

More than 500 agencies use the BolaWrap, Smith said, including the Los Angeles and Seattle police departments. None of Colorado’s largest agencies are using the tool. A spokesman for the Denver Police Department said the agency did not have any plans to purchase the device.

The following 15 Colorado law enforcement agencies are using or testing out the BolaWrap:

  • Otero County Sheriff’s Office
  • Nederland PD
  • Glenwood Springs PD
  • Louisville PD
  • Frisco PD
  • Antonito PD
  • Bayfield Marshal’s Office
  • Greeley PD
  • Gunnison PD
  • Greenwood Village PD
  • Rio Grande County Sheriff’s Office
  • Rifle PD
  • Avon PD
  • Manassa PD
  • La Junta PD

The Greeley Police Department — the largest Colorado agency using the devices — purchased six BolaWraps in the spring, Deputy Chief Adam Turk said. Each device costs between $1,000 and $1,300. Patrol sergeants will carry the device in their cars, but the department has not yet used them in the field because not all the sergeants have been trained yet, Turk said.

He wished the department had them earlier this year when officers were contacting a suicidal man armed with a knife and a lead pipe. Officers were eventually able to subdue the man, but they had to use a Taser multiple times and a bean bag gun, Turk said.

Nobody was seriously injured, but Turk wished there was another way that would’ve been less painful to the man.

“If it works one time, it’s worth every penny that we spent on them,” Turk said.

The increased interest in the new tools misses a larger goal of people pushing for broad police reform in the U.S., however, Atchity said.

“Why are the police responding to someone who is in distress?” Atchity said. “Why don’t we have someone who knows human health respond?”

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