SAN DIEGO Police preparing for a wave of demonstrations at next week's biotechnology industry convention have a new weapon in their arsenal, but some protesters say it's an example of non-lethal force taken too far.
It's called the Pepperball launcher, a weapon designed to pelt people or the area around them with marble-sized plastic balls that break on impact into a dusty cloud of acrid pepper dust.
San Diego police bought two dozen Pepperball launchers and plan to have them ready for the BIO 2001 convention that runs from Sunday through Wednesday, said SWAT team commander Lt. Cesar Solis.
The 5th Grassroots Gathering to Celebrate Biodiversity and Question Genetic Engineering
"It gives the officers one more option, rather than resort to something that could be lethal," Solis said.
But Paul Marini, a political activist from Oakland, said such devices can still cause serious injuries. The Pepperball can fire six rounds per second.
"It's an unholy alliance between pepper spray and the rubber bullet," said Marini, who works with the Midnight Special Law Collective, an organization that provides assistance to demonstrators.
"What they really are is maiming weapons," he said.
Officials with Jaycor Tactical Systems Inc., the San Diego company that manufactures Pepperball, said serious injuries aren't likely.
Company videos show employees and volunteers being hit with the plastic ball, which causes a welt but doesn't break the skin.
"The only way you are going to kill someone with this is if you hold them down and shoot it down their throat," said Dennis Cole, a retired San Diego County sheriff's captain who is a salesman for the company.
Unlike pepper spray, Pepperball doesn't require officers to approach a suspect and can be fired from 30 feet away. And unlike tear gas, there are no canisters that can be tossed back at police.
The air-powered launchers run from $180 to nearly $1,000. Jaycor officials said the company has sold Pepperball to 400 law enforcement agencies, including the police departments of New York and Los Angeles.
Officers receiving training for the San Diego conference know all about other protests in recent years, including during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle that resulted in more than 600 arrests and $2.5 million in vandalism and property damage.
"We will be very aggressive," police spokesman David Cohen said. "Our goal is to not let it become a Seattle."
On the Net:
Midnight Special Law Collective: http://www.midnightspecial.net/
San Diego Police: http://www.sannet.gov/police/
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press