Company raises concerns about Illinois grants for ‘less-lethal’ police tools

Images from a BolaWrap promotional video show the device and a discharged bolo. (Wrap Technologies)

By Catrina Petersen

(The Center Square) – The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority recently authorized a $19 million grant for police forces to procure “less-lethal” tools. This was intended to give officers alternatives to guns so that they can pacify situations that might otherwise end in violence.

ICJIA awarded the grant to the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System to distribute. It appears the primary beneficiary has been a single company: Axon, the makers of Taser.

Retired Seguin Police Chief Terry Nichols is the director of training and grant management at Wrap Technologies, the maker of BolaWrap. The BolaWrap resembles a modern-day lasso that shoots out from a device the officer points at the civilian. Here’s what it looks like:

Nichols said the ILEAS grant was basically a taxpayer-funded donation to a private company.

“Fifteen million dollars of that [$19 million] was directly for Axon for 7,541 Tasers for 250 plus agencies in Illinois,” said Nichols.

A month ago, a Taser was used on an autistic boy in the Chicago suburb of Dolton in a case of mistaken identity. Nichols said Tasers have killed 500 people since 2010.

“What you’ll see is agencies that already have Tasers, and they’re a tool they can be used, but there’s a significant downside to them. No one has died [being subdued by a BolaWrap], no one has been sued. No taxpayer funds have been used to settle a lawsuit for excessive force,” said Nichols. “To not talk to us [Wrap Technologies] and at least give local agencies and communities an opportunity to apply for grant funds for these technologies, to me, it’s just wrong.”

Wrap Technologies has BolaWrap contracts with over a thousand police forces nationwide.

The ILEAS grant lists all kinds of less-lethal tools that could be procured, but it lists one product by name: Taser. Wrap Technologies said this listing of the private company by name was biased.

Officers who already likely have a Taser might be getting an upgraded Taser or a second one.

“It’s like trading in your 2022 car for a 2023,” said Nichols. “Your old one drives just fine. You could spend that money and get new technology instead of getting the latest and greatest.”

ILEAS asked departments around the state to answer questions in a survey after announcing they received the money from the ICJIA.

One question asked: “If your agency applies for this grant, what make and model of conducted energy weapons would you request?”

The question was preceded by a series of multiple-choice answers listing various models of Tasers.

Nichols said he has been stonewalled and ignored when it comes to getting to the bottom of why this taxpayer-funded grant has gone to a single company.

“ILEAS could propose $5 million towards BolaWrap, $5 million towards Taser, $5 million towards something else,” said Nichols. “But they didn’t. They went with one horse and there’s a reason behind that, I guarantee you.”

Nichols said he tried to apply and get BolaWrap to become a “pre-approved device.” Pre-approved devices are the only devices police departments can buy with the grant money.

“[ICJIA] mentioned [some non-lethal tools that agencies can buy with grant money] OC spray, batons … I asked through the formal channels to be included and have BolaWrap pre-approved. They said ‘other pre-approved devices by ICJIA’ would be considered as well. I requested pre-approval and I was denied,” said Nichols.

Nichols said police agencies around the state have asked him for grant funds to get BolaWrap for officers. He has to tell those agencies, “‘I’ll try to find out some other grants.'”

“There is one in Illinois but you can’t apply for it because it only applies to Tasers,” he said.

Unlike the ILEAS’ Less Lethal Alternatives for Law Enforcement Grant, the Law Enforcement Camera Grant Act does not name a specific vendor.

At a Senate Appropriations-Public Safety and Infrastructure Committee hearing Wednesday, state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea, raised concern about a $63 million balance still left in the coffers of the Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board for the camera grant.

Belt said, “The director [Keith Calloway] assured me that those numbers will be going down, and the applications have been coming, which means those funds will be going out to the various police departments” to buy body cams and dash cams.

Now that the SAFE-T Act requires all officers in the state to wear body-worn cameras, agencies will be applying for those LETSB equipment grants. Calloway told The Center Square agencies that they would get to decide which vendor they would purchase cameras from.

However, the ILEAS website for the Less Lethal Alternatives for Law Enforcement Grant lists a specific vendor: Taser.

“Eligible law enforcement agencies in Illinois will be able to apply for either the Taser 7 or Taser 10 device,” states the ILEAS website.

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