Catching Crooks In A Web

Police departments now have the option of wrapping up suspects in a web, a nonlethal approach that gives officers time to slap on a pair of handcuffs.

The Webshot device looks a bit like a shotgun but fires a Kevlar net. At least 20 law enforcement agencies around the world are trying the product made by Foster-Miller Inc., a company in the Boston suburb of Waltham.

"It's going at about 65 mph toward you, so you have no time to react," said Shawn Gaskell, a Foster-Miller engineer who has played the role of suspect during testing. "It also kind of stuns you because it's loud and there's a big flash."

A consensus is emerging in law enforcement that officers need more alternatives to their guns and nightsticks, partly to avoid the lawsuits and public relations problems that result when officers shoot lightly armed but belligerent suspects.

Some departments have tried guns that fire bean bags to knock down uncooperative suspects. Others have experimented with a pump-like device that coats suspects in a sticky foam.

"The police officer today has basically the same instruments at his or her disposal as Wyatt Earp had," said Michael Buerger, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "But they recognize that not all situations involving combative suspects require such force."

Foster-Miller's Webshot project grew out of an Army contract and has been in development for about eight years, Gaskell said. The Army had wanted a nonlethal weapon for peacekeeping operations, but the Webshot doesn't meet military specifications because its range is only 7 to 30 feet.

But that is enough to meet the needs of police, who also can afford the Webshot - nets sell for about $50 apiece. Foster-Miller makes a single-shot unit that sells for about $90.

By Tom Kirchofer