Fitchburg firm makes a less-lethal bullet

Photos by Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe

After years of building medical devices, Micron Products Inc. is now making a different kind of lifesaving device: ammunition that lets a police officer knock a suspect flat on his back, without taking his life.

Micron, of Fitchburg, was hired by Security Devices International Inc. in Tampa to manufacture a new type of less-lethal ammunition for use by police who are dealing with public disturbances. A variation on the traditional rubber bullet, the projectile features a gel-filled nose that expands and flattens against a person’s body on impact.

Dubbed the Blunt Impact Projectile, the product is one of several types of ammunition being developed as an alternative to lethal force, at a time when deadly confrontations between police and civilians have spawned protests nationwide.

SDI’s projectile is being used by police in several US cities, including Los Angeles.

In Ferguson, Mo., meanwhile, where the shooting death of an unarmed black suspect by a white officer sparked a riot and launched a nationwide debate on the use of deadly force by police, officers are testing an unusual device that allows a shot from a pistol to injure but not kill a suspect.

“Law enforcement has to have the ability to have them cease their activities,” said Security Devices’ chief executive, Greg Sullivan, but civilians “have the right the next day to go to work with no broken bones or internal bleeding.”

Police departments have used different types of so-called less-lethal ammunition for years, from bean bag projectiles to small plastic pellets sprayed shotgun-style. Some of those have their own risks; rubber bullets can penetrate skin, for example.

The company also makes a bullet that tags suspects with a fluorescent dye blended with DNA molecules.

In Boston, 21-year-old Victoria Snelgrove died in 2004 after being struck in the eye by a pepper spray projectile fired by a Boston police officer. Snelgrove, a junior at Emerson College, was among thousands of revelers police were trying to contain near Fenway Park after the Red Sox won the pennant that year.

Since then, only specially trained Boston police supervisors have been allowed to use less-lethal weapons, shotguns that fire pellet-filled fabric bags that can stun a person but are less likely to do permanent damage.

Even calling such devices “nonlethal” is frowned upon by some in the industry, who caution that any object fired from a gun can kill.

“It’s very easy to be lethal,” said Neil Keegstra, the law enforcement a sales manager at Lightfield Ammunition in Freehold, N.J., one of SDI’s competitors. “It’s very difficult to be less lethal.”

Police in Ferguson and several other US cities are testing a snap-on attachment­ for standard-issue pistols that has a metal ball at its tip. When the gun is fired, the bullet merges with the metal ball to form a larger, slower-moving projectile. When the object hits the target, its impact is spread over a much larger area. A suspect could easily suffer broken ribs and severe bruising, but the round probably won’t penetrate the body.

Called the Alternative and made by Alternative Ballistics of Poway, Calif., the device is also used in South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

The blunt projectile made by SDI works more like an air bag, said Sullivan, a former Toronto police officer. At 40 millimeters, it is much bigger than a bullet and is fired from a launcher like those used for tear gas grenades. The cushioned round still hurts, but its impact is spread over a larger area of the body, Sullivan said, reducing the risk of internal injuries.

William Bozeman, a professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston Salem, N.C., said it is difficult to design a round that does just enough harm to a suspect, but not too much.

“If it hits somebody in the abdomen, which is where we’d expect them to be hit, we think about injuries to the liver or to the spleen,” said Bozeman, who also works as an on-call physician for a police SWAT team. “If it strikes on a bony area, then you can have a broken bone.”

But Micron Products’ chief executive, Salvatore Emma, noted that his company specializes in components for artificial knees and hips, where there is no margin for error.

“We have to make sure that every single one of these blunt impact projectiles is safe. They save lives, but they have to work, and they have to work right every time.”

The cushioned rounds were introduced in 2013, and this year SDI and Micron unveiled new rounds that deliver a double impact — a physical shock, combined with a cloud of chemicals, such as tear gas, pepper spray, or a “malodorant” that repels targets with an intensely foul stench.

One version of the projectile will even tag suspects with a fluorescent dye blended with DNA molecules. The dye glows under ultraviolet light and remains on skin and clothing for days. The company said the DNA in the dye can be used as evidence to show that the suspect was shot by police while breaking the law.

And SDI is working on an even more advanced round: a kind of wireless Taser bullet with a built-in battery that would deliver a massive electric jolt on impact.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
Follow Hiawatha on Twitter - Facebook - Google+