Several departments will continue use

Updated: October 27, 2004, 7:23 PM ET
Associated Press

BOSTON -- At least one big-city police department has suspended use of pepper-spray pellet guns blamed for the death of a 21-year-old college student who was shot by police trying to break up a rowdy crowd of Red Sox fans last week.

The Seattle Police Department said it has shelved the equipment until it can determine what happened in Boston. Department spokesman Scott Moss said that the guns are normally restricted to a few trained officers and have yet to be used.

Other police departments around the country said they have found such crowd-control weapons to be effective and would keep using them.

"We've used it on six occasions and haven't had any problems with it," said Sgt. Carlos Rojas of the Santa Ana, Calif., Police Department.

Boston police, who acquired the weapons for this year's Democratic National Convention, have put them aside at least temporarily and have gone back to using a previous model since the death of Victoria Snelgrove, who was shot in the eye.

The reassessment came as Boston police girded for another potential Sox-inspired frenzy, with the hometown team standing on the brink of a World Series victory against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Red Sox had their first chance to clinch Wednesday night.

Snelgrove was among an estimated 80,000 fans who swarmed the streets outside Fenway Park after the Red Sox beat the rival New York Yankees to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1986.

Officers fired into a crowd of fans, striking Snelgrove and at least two others. Paul Gately, 24, needed stitches to patch a hole in his cheek and suffered bruises and welts on his torso. Kapila Bhamidipati, of Bridgewater, N.J., was struck in the temple and said doctors had to remove small pieces of plastic from his forehead.

Within 24 hours of Snelgrove's death, Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole suspended use of the pepper guns. Several days later, O'Toole tapped Massachusetts' former chief federal prosecutor, Donald K. Stern, to lead an investigation into the death.

Virginia-based FN Herstal, which manufactures the FN303 weapon used in Boston, said there have been no other instances of anyone seriously injured or killed since the gun went on the market about two years ago.

Bucky Mills, deputy director of law enforcement sale, marketing and training, said a couple of hundred law enforcement agencies have bought the guns, including New York City and Washington, D.C., and several federal agencies.

Charles "Sid" Heal, a commander with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and an expert on less-than-lethal force, said the only thing that stopped his department from buying the FN303 was its cost -- about $900 per launcher. Heal said the FN303 launcher was known to be very accurate.

"They're one of the best that are out there," Heal said. "We tried it, we liked it, we just couldn't afford it."

Because the pellet is not propelled with a great deal of velocity, Heal said he was shocked that it was implicated in a death.

"If you had asked me beforehand, I would have said it couldn't have happened," Heal said.

On its Web site, FN Herstal says the weapon should never be aimed at a person's throat, neck or head.

The same weapons were used without incident in College Park, Md., in 2002 after the University of Maryland basketball team won the NCAA championship.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press