The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This Spider-Man-like lasso is marketed as a policing game-changer. Some aren’t buying it.

The Landover Hills, Md., Police Department gives a demonstration of the BolaWrap this month. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

With his arms raised, Landover Hills Police Chief Robert Liberati slowly walked toward the woman in front of him as she pointed a green laser at his shins and yelled, “Bola! Bola!” When she fired the device in her hand, it let out the boom of a gunshot. But instead of bullets, it discharged Kevlar wires outfitted with hooks that wrapped around the chief’s ankles like a lasso.

“It has taken away his legs, effectively making him immobile,” said Richard Ross, the former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, who traveled to Maryland this month to offer a demonstration of the Spider-Man-like gadget. Ross, a consultant for the company that produces the device, said it could “change what we do in policing for years to come.”

Called a BolaWrap, the device is being marketed to departments around the world as a nonlethal tool for law enforcement to use when trying to detain people who are not complying with commands — especially those who may be experiencing a mental health crisis or who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It fills the gap, BolaWrap representatives say, for an officer deciding whether to approach someone or use a potentially lethal weapon.

“This is not the be-all and end-all, but in the use-of-force spectrum, you’re kind of between an empty hand and pepper spray or a Taser,” Liberati said after the BolaWrap demonstration outside his department’s headquarters.

Officers from 600 agencies in nearly every region of the country have attended demonstrations of the product, and approximately 90 departments have taken steps to purchase them, the company said. Los Angeles police are running a pilot program with 1,000 of the devices, and SWAT officers in Fort Worth successfully subdued someone with a BolaWrap, according to the company.

In the Washington region, about a dozen departments have attended a demonstration, but Liberati’s six-officer force will become one of the first to invest in the devices.

Developed around 2016, the BolaWrap was modeled after the bolas used by gauchos to wrangle animals. It went to market in 2018, and Taser founder Thomas Smith signed on in 2019 as president of Wrap Technologies. The company has been selling the device to law enforcement agencies for about a year, but over the past two months, Smith said, interest has increased as departments across the country explore calls for police reform measures after the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis officers.

The increase coincides with calls locally and nationally to redirect police funding toward social workers and those trained in mental health crisis intervention. Police officers are not equipped to deal with these situations, advocates for such changes say, leading to unnecessary, violent encounters that sometimes turn deadly.

“Mental health is really what started the company,” Smith said. The mandate to the product inventor was to create something that would not rely on “pain compliance.”

The device, according to the company, launches an eight-foot tether at 513 feet per second to restrain a subject 10 to 25 feet away. The BolaWrap and all its related equipment, including a holster and cartridges, can cost between $1,000 and $1,300 per device, the company said.

A year into sales, Smith said he envisions the BolaWrap catching on gradually — the same way the Taser did when it was introduced in the 1990s.

Though several departments locally have attended BolaWrap demonstrations, few have signed on to use the device.

The Prince George’s County Police Department, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the area, attended a demonstration last summer, but police spokeswoman Christina Cotterman said that “after analyzing the product and associated costs, we ultimately decided against purchasing the equipment.”

D.C. police also received a demonstration, but the department has no plans to buy the device. D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said he has seen videos of the BolaWrap and is skeptical.

“Any less-than-lethal option is something we always consider,” Newsham said. But from the video, “I questioned its ability to take someone down who is not trying to be taken down.”

The product has also drawn broader criticism from reform advocates who have said that funding should be put into proactive — not reactive — mental health resources.

“Mental health should not be a policing issue,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher John Raphling wrote in an analysis of the BolaWrap. “Police are poorly equipped to help people having mental health crises when compared to mental health professionals — another weapon on their tool belt will not change this fact.”

Smith said the BolaWrap is not a “silver bullet” but a useful de-escalation tool for officers who find themselves handling crises.

“It’s going to be a breadth of things that are going to address this, and I think we’re one piece of it,” Smith said, adding, “We’re going to reduce those higher levels of force being used.”

Though the region’s largest departments have not bought into the BolaWrap, others around the nation have. The Los Angeles Police Department’s BolaWrap pilot program began in February. Cmdr. Ruby Flores, who works in the training division, said the department has been working with BolaWraps since 2018 to help develop the product. It is keeping deployment data to track the device’s success rate.

Other departments in California, Florida and Texas have reported detainments or arrests made with a BolaWrap, Smith said, including the first documented successful deployment, by the Fort Worth Police Department during a SWAT call for a hostage situation.

The BolaWrap requires a three-foot radius around the subject to deploy properly, which makes indoor use more difficult. In Fort Worth, officers drew a man out of a home with tear gas and then deployed the device.

At the Landover Hills demonstration, Ross, the former Philadelphia police commissioner, said the small hooks at each end of the BolaWrap cable are designed to embed in the subject’s clothing. But they could also hook their skin — which is what happened during a second demonstration involving Liberati.

The BolaWrap was deployed too high on the chief’s body, hooking his hand and leaving him bloody.

“I had my hands too low, and that was my fault,” Liberati said. “But I’m fine, I’m fine.”

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.