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LESS LETHAL GUNS: When do police shoot, but not kill?

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Taking another person's life -- police say it's the last thing they want to do.

But recent headlines around the country are putting the spotlight on how police deal with potentially deadly situations.

And the numbers are staggeringan average of 400 people are killed by police every year, according to FBI databases. And not every officer-involved death is reported to the FBI.

More police departments are turning to less lethal guns, firearms that are designed to shoot, but not kill.

Officers say they're saving lives in our area.

Bruzer Less LethalWSBT 22 met up with a local company that makes less lethal guns, Bruzer Less Lethal.

Their product is the first of its kindinvented, designed and created in Elkhart.

Tommy Teach, the founder and CEO of Bruzer Less Lethal, says his ML-12 Bruzer is the only less lethal handgun on the market right now.

The "Bruzer," dubbed for its hardy bruising capabilities, looks and shoots just like a real gun. But it fires bean bag pellets instead of deadly bullets.

Still incredibly painful"It would be like getting hit by me," Teach explainsbut not deadly.

Police use-of-force has been an ongoing debate across the country. The August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., reignited that debate.

Then more police-involved shootings followed.

The April case out of South Carolina shows chilling cell phone video of police officer Michael Slager allegedly fatally shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed man, in the back. Slager faces murder charges.

An unpaid volunteer reserve deputy in Tulsa, 73-year-old Robert Bates, reportedly meant to use a taser, but instead fired his gun, killing Eric Harris. Bates faces manslaughter charges.

And suddenly, more police departments have their sights set on Bruzer Less Lethal.

"We're getting more and more phone calls, two, three, four times a day," Teach says. "'Hey, we want to take a look at your product.'"

'No officer wants to use deadly force'In fact, several police departments around the country are already carrying the Bruzers.

Teach explains they are not meant to be used as a replacement for lethal guns, but are a necessary alternative.

"To have to take somebody's life is a terrible thing," Teach says. "Nobody wants to do it."

And police officers WSBT 22 spoke with agreekilling another person, even if the officer is justified in shootingis still the worst-case scenario.

"The reality is, no officer wants to use deadly force," says Lt. Steven Spadafora, commander of South Bend Police's SWAT team.

"For law enforcement, the last thing we want to do at the end of the day is take a person's life," agrees Chief Mark Swistek of Michigan City Police.

Several local police departments have long been using some type of less lethal gun, whether it's bean bag rounds, rubber bullets, or plastic balls often used for riot control.

Michigan City Police have been using bean bag rounds for more than 10 years. Chief Swistek says they save lives.

And an incident from February shows us how: The suspect, Vincent Toliver from Wisconsin, allegedly shoots his gun inside a drug store in Illinois, then leads officers on a 75-mile chase across state lines before finally stopping on I-94.

Dash-cam video exclusive to WSBT 22 shows the end of a 90-minute standoff with the armed and dangerous gunman. Toliver gets out of his truck, gun in hand, refusing to get on the ground.

Officers shoot Toliver with less lethal bean bag rounds, forcing him to surrender, but sparing his life.

"We ended this very stressful and dangerous situation," says Swistek, who was one of the officers to fire the rounds at Toliver that night. "It came to a successful conclusion without taking the life of the young man."

So why doesn't every single police officer in the U.S. carry a less lethal gun?

South Bend Police say it's ideal, but unrealistic right now. Because of cost and extensive training, only about 20 of their 260 officers use less lethal guns.

"Just selectively trained officers," explains Lt. Spadafora. "As a practical matter, there's no way to equip and train everyone on the department."

South Bend Police have had success with their less lethal technology, saying they're ideal for incidents like suicidal subjects, hostage situations and suspects on drugs.

"We've been doing this since the early 2000s," explains Lt. Skibins, assistant commander for SBPD's SWAT team.

Less Lethal ShortfallsBut they're not perfect.

It rarely happens, but less lethal guns can kill, especially people who already have serious health problems (think heart attack-prone, or elderly people).

What's more, police say some criminals are no longer scared of them.

Police departments often "mark" their less lethal guns with orange tape or parts, to designate that they are less-than-deadly weapons, out of safety. Criminals who are used to seeing less lethal weapons know the gun will likely not kill them.

"Nothing is 100 percent certain," Spadafora says. "We can never be certain this is going to take somebody down."

So less lethal guns are not the solution, they say, but an option.

An option that could save lives, of both the public, and police.

"I see it on every duty belt in this country," Teach says.

The Bruzers cost about $600 each for private citizens. Even though they are considered non-deadly weapons, less lethal guns are treated like any other firearm. Gun licenses and laws are exactly the same for less lethal guns as they are for deadly guns.

To learn more about Bruzer Less Lethal, visit bruzerlesslethal.com.

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