TAMPA — One day in late May, a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy responded to a domestic battery call in Citrus Park and was immediately greeted by a suspect who threw a chair at him.
The deputy reached for a new tool on his utility belt called a BolaWrap. From several feet away, the deputy fired a Kevlar tether that wrapped around the suspect’s torso and arms. The deputy quickly took the man to the ground and into custody.
“In this tense and unpredictable moment, the deputy was able to successfully use the BolaWrap,” Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference Wednesday as footage captured by the deputy’s body camera played on a screen next to him.
The incident helped persuade Chronister to add his office to the increasing number of law enforcement agencies across the country that are using the BolaWrap, a device that has drawn comparisons to Batman and Spiderman.
Modeled after the bola used by gauchos to wrangle animals, the so-called “remote restraint” fires an 8-foot Kevlar tether at 513 feet per second to bind a person’s legs or arms at a range of 10 to 25 feet. Fishhook-like barbs at the end of the tether hook into clothing (and can also puncture bare skin, as it did to the police chief in Landover Hills, Md. during a demo last year, according to the Washington Post.)
The user aims the device with a laser pointer to target a person’s arms or legs. It’s powered by a .380 “partial charge” blank and sounds like a gun when fired.
The BolaWrap is manufactured by Tempe, Ariz.-based Wrap Technologies.
“Policing just got safer,” the company’s website proclaims, stating the device “safely and humanely restrains resisting subjects from a distance without relying on pain compliance tools.”
The website says more than 500 police agencies in the United States are using BolaWrap devices and “many more” are in the process of training and writing policies for their respective agencies. The company says the device has been used to take people safely into custody in cities across the country.
Chronister started a pilot program at his office in April, issuing the device to 20 deputies. The program showed the device is effective, Chronister said, so he is expanding the program to 165 BolaWraps spread out among the office’s five patrol districts and the Behavioral Resources Unit launched last year.
“Implementing this new de-escalation tool is another example of your Sheriff’s Office evolving,” Chronister said. “I’m excited and proud that our deputies have another less lethal resource to avoid those physical confrontations and gain control of non-compliant, combative and violent individuals without anyone getting hurt. This is smarter policing.”
Each BolaWrap costs $1,000, and replacement cartridges are $100. Chronister said his office paid for the devices with funds already in his budget.
Deputies who receive the BolaWrap will continue to carry Tasers, another less-lethal device known as an electroshock weapon, Chronister said. But he envisioned situations where the BolaWrap will serve as an alternative to shocking people or using higher degrees of force if deputies have the time. That could be a suspect wielding a knife or a blunt object or in situations involving people in the midst of a mental health crisis, under the influence of drugs or both who need to be taken into custody to protect them and people around them, the sheriff said.
A report by use-of-force experts commissioned by Wrap Technologies and posted on its web site puts the BolaWrap about even with handcuffs for its risk of injury to a person. The authors recommended the device not be used around water or in other situations that could be dangerous to a falling person.
The device is already in the hands of officers and deputies at some of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies.
The Los Angeles Police Department started a pilot program in 2019, according to the Los Angeles Times, and in May the police commission there extended the program for another year. Miami police Chief Art Acevedo announced in June that his department would be issuing the BolaWrap to officers, CBS Miami reported.
The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office is the first large agency in the Tampa Bay region to use the BolaWrap. Spokespeople for police departments in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater and for sheriffs’ offices in Pinellas and Pasco county said their agencies do not use the device.
“We considered it some time ago (a year or two) and the technology was not where it needed to be at that time to meet our needs; therefore, we chose not to proceed,” Sgt. Jessica Mackesy, a spokesperson for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email.
The Indian Shores Police Department purchased a dozen BolaWraps for its department in May, according to tbnweekly.com.
Not everyone is sold on the device.
The BolaWrap raises “serious concerns” that it will be overused in general and disproportionately used on people of color and people with mental health issues, John Raphling, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in a piece last year. Raphling noted how in a promotional video, the company’s chief executive said the BolaWrap was designed for people suffering mental health issues.
“This marketing message unfairly stigmatizes people with mental health conditions as dangerous, when, in fact, they are much more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it,” Raphling wrote. “There is danger that officers will use the BolaWrap too frequently, and as a short-cut, when encountering people with mental health conditions.”