Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton has ordered about 60 elite police officers off the streets for firing foam bullets and "socklike projectiles" into a crowd during an immigration rally on May Day. What's a socklike projectile?
A mesh bag filled with about 40 grams of metal or ceramic shot that's fired out of a shotgun or grenade launcher. After they're fired, these compressed rounds expand into 5-inch-long projectiles that look like stuffed tube socks tied with string. The trailing end of the sock forms a tail that provides stability and improves accuracy. (Socks can be fired from as far away as 60 feet, as opposed to about 21 feet for some Tasers.) When the round hits, its force—on par with a small-caliber handgun bullet—spreads across a relatively wide area, making them nonlethal in most circumstances. (Doctors say that getting hit by one is like getting beaned by a major-league pitcher's fastball.) Police officials try to aim for the butt, thigh, forearm, or below the knee; used properly, the socks can make somebody double over in pain or fall to the ground. But they can be deadly if they strike the head, neck, heart, or spine.
Sock rounds are the newest version of the "beanbag" rounds that have been in use for at least two decades. Older beanbags, which some police and military forces still use, have the same effects but are much harder to control—and much deadlier. They come in small, flat pouches and resemble square or round ravioli filled with lead shot. The beanbags sometimes sport streamers, but they still have less stability than the sock rounds, so they can miss their targets altogether. A strong wind or the pouch's own rotation can force the sharp edge of the beanbag—rather than the flat side—to strike an individual. When this happens, the bag can slice through skin and cause more severe injuries. In some cases, the beanbags have broken ribs, punctured lungs, or become lodged in the heart. (Anecdotally, sock rounds have a much better safety record.)
Police departments in the United States—as well as in Western Europe, Israel, Japan, Mexico, and Canada—use beanbags or sock rounds for many reasons: civilian crowd control, prison riots, to take out armed or suicidal individuals, or to take down animals. The use of beanbags in Cincinnati helped spark the city's 2001 race riots. In some cities, law-enforcement agencies have stopped using the deadly ravioli, but switching to socks can be costly. (In 2001, the socklike projectiles sold for about twice as much as beanbags.)
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Explainer thanks William Bozeman of Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Richard Edge of Combined Tactical Systems, and Michael Silver of Anacapa Sciences.