Use of Force: Non-Lethal Defensive Tools (Part 3 of 3)

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How You Can Deter Violence with Non-Lethal Force at Your Hospital

A prisoner being treated at a hospital suddenly disarms the deputy guarding him, shooting and killing him with his own service weapon.  The prisoner, now armed and not wearing handcuffs, poses a lethal risk to anyone else in the hospital who might try to stop him.  Hospital security officers, armed with TASERs, respond to the scene and deploy a TASER to stop the threat and subdue the prisoner.  The TASER effectively subdues the man, who later is pronounced dead.

This is a nightmare scenario that actually unfolded at a hospital in St. Cloud Minnesota in 2015.  Had the hospital security officers not been armed with TASERs, other lives might have been lost that day.  While TASERs are not meant to be a response to deadly force incidents, the deployment of this non-lethal defensive tool in this case was effective, but also resulted in the death of the subject.

Non-Lethal Tools- Responding to Increasing Violence

The violent incident in St. Cloud helps to illustrate the issue of the increasing amount of violence that is plaguing hospitals in the US and around the world.  Numerous studies by both private and federal researchers have found that violence in healthcare is increasing at a steady rate.  In order to combat the more serious forms of violence in healthcare, it is sometimes necessary to equip hospital security officers with non-lethal defensive tools.

There are several non-lethal options out there that are being used by hospitals both small and large. However,  it’s important to evaluate the overall risk of violence at your particular institution in addition to considering the pros and cons of any non-lethal options before deciding to equip your security team with these tools.  Non-lethal tools, while a means to enhance safety, can also increase both criminal and civil liability risk for a hospital and its security officers.  High-quality training for officers is absolutely critical for any issued non-lethal tool.

In addition to risk assessment, defensive tool selection, and training, it’s also important that you fully understand the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Interpretive Guidelines as they pertain to use of weapons in healthcare.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the non-lethal options that are being used in hospitals in the US and some of the pros and cons associated with these tools.

OC/Pepper Spray as a Non-Lethal Tool

Oleoresin Capsicum (OC), or pepper spray is a non-lethal solution that has been proven over time to be an effective and reasonably safe means to help control aggressive people.  Unlike mace or tear gas, which contain chemicals, pepper spray is derived from hot peppers and is technically classified as a food (although I don’t recommend eating it).  In a study conducted by the Department of Justice, pepper spray was shown to reduce injuries to both officers AND suspects.  This is because pepper spray can reduce the amount of hands-on physical force that is required to bring a situation under control.  However, it is important to note that pepper spray is not the magic bullet and doesn’t work against everyone all the time.  Also, while it’s quite safe, there have been rare instances where aggressors have died in custody.

Cross contamination is one of the primary concerns raised when pepper spray is being evaluated as a non-lethal tool for hospital security staff.  Clinical staff and administrators may fear that the pepper spray could impact other patients in the area where it’s deployed.  The cross contamination issue surrounding pepper spray can be mitigated by selecting the right delivery method and properly training security staff.  Let’s look at this more closely:

  • Delivery method- Selecting a foam or gel delivery system over a cone or stream system will help to decrease the amount of pepper spray that is released into the air.  Gel tends to perform better in terms of range and accuracy in my opinion.  A cone spray will put a lot of aerosolized pepper spray into the air, making it a poor choice for indoor use.  Stream spray will put less pepper spray into the air, but won’t contain aerosolized pepper spray as much as foam or gel.
  • TrainingAs with any defensive tool, training is absolutely essential.  A good pepper spray training program will emphasize using short bursts of spray versus just holding down the dispensing button until the can is empty.  Less pepper spray being dispensed means less cross contamination.


TASERs are steadily finding their way into hospitals on the belts of security staff, but they are not without concerns and some controversy.  A 2014 study by the International Healthcare Security and Safety Foundation (IHSSF) found that 47% of the 340 hospitals surveyed were using TASERs, up from 12% of hospitals from a 2011 survey published in Health Facilities Management magazine.  Like pepper spray, TASERs can be an effective tool in reducing or stopping a threat from an aggressive person.

However, like pepper spray, TASERs can’t be relied upon to work on everyone and may require more than one deployment to achieve compliance.  A 2008 study published by the Florida Gulf Coast University Weapons & Equipment Research Institute found that, out of 2,113 initial TASER deployments examined over a 5 year period, only about 69% were considered effective.  For the purposes of this study, effectiveness on the first deployment meant suspect compliance within 5 seconds.  Initial effectiveness was impacted by loose suspect clothing, missed shots, suspect intervention, and other issues.

Again, ongoing training is absolutely essential for any officers carrying a TASER.  For hospitals considering deploying TASERs, this article published by HCPro does a great job at breaking down TASER implementation from the perspective of hospitals who have deployed these devices.


The baton has been a tool used by hospital security for many years.  The introduction of collapsible batons made it easier for these tools to be carried more discreetly than their wooden non-lethal defensive toolscounterparts.  The 2014 IHSSF study on weapon use by hospitals found that 56% of the 340 hospitals surveyed had security officers carrying batons.

The baton, like TASERs and pepper spray in the healthcare environment can be controversial.  However, they provide a means to deploy non-lethal force when other devices, such as TASERs and pepper spray have failed to produce desired subject compliance.  Further, batons can be used as a “come-along” device to supplement hands on escort techniques or to block strikes from a subject.

Sometimes, the mere deployment of a collapsible baton- the sound plus the appearance- is enough to elicit subject compliance.  Unlike TASERs and pepper spray that typically have very temporary impacts on subjects (electrical impulses stop, pepper spray wears off), a baton strike can break bones and possibly cause a head injury to a subject.  This risk associated with the baton should carefully be considered by any hospital looking to deploy it as a tool.  Of course, proper training and officer selection can help to mitigate the risk associated with baton deployment and use.

Flashlights and Lasers, Oh My!

Flashlights have long been considered an option for law enforcement officers as a distraction and impact device.  The older, D and C-cell battery aluminum flashlights that were previously popular with police officers offered both bright illumination that could be used to temporarily “blind” a subject in a dark environment and were heavy enough to use in a pinch to deliver a well-placed strike.

Fast forward to today and most security and law enforcement professionals have dispensed with these large, cumbersome lights for smaller, brighter flashlights.  Some of these flashlights offer a striking surface around the lens and/or a strobe function.  The strobe function on these lights can help to further disorient a subject to allow an officer to gain a tactical advantage over them.

Lasers, in particular the Dazer Laser, are a fairly newer and less popular non-lethal intervention for hospital security staff.  The Dazer Laser works by using a pulsating laser that is safe to use on the human eye for a short duration.  The laser effectively “blinds” the subject through the use of intense laser light.  In contrast to bright flashlights, the Dazer Laser works in daylight and darkness and has a greater range of effectiveness (over a half mile!) than a flashlight.  Like the flashlight, the Dazer Laser doesn’t incapacitate a subject the way that pepper spray, TASERs and batons might, but it does allow for an officer to gain an advantage over the subject- potentially increasing the safety of the subject and officer.

Putting It All Together

There are several options for non-lethal defensive tools for hospital security departments.  However, any department considering any of these tools should do its homework before deciding to deploy them.  All of the tools examined in this article have some potential to cause injury or death whether properly or improperly used (yes- even the flashlight) and could trigger associated criminal and civil liability.

Ensuring that you are putting the right tools in the hands of well-selected and trained officers is essential.  Periodic re-training and scenario-based training is also quite important.  Ultimately, the non-lethal defensive tools that your officers carry may prevent injury to the officer, the subject, and bystanders and could even save a life someday.


Dave Corbin has over 20 years of security experience in both retail and healthcare sectors. He is the Director of Facilities, Public Safety, and Parking for a hospital in Massachusetts. The above post is from his personal blog and is part 3 of 3 in a series. Part 1 focuses on policy, and part 2 focuses on evaluation. 

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