BEAUFORT, S.C. (TND) — Deadly police encounters have seized national headlines and ignited a fierce debate about the use of force by law enforcement. But there’s a new tool designed to help officers de-escalate situations without hurting anyone or putting themselves in danger.
It functions like a new-age lasso and it could be a lifesaver.
Anthony Gagliani still has nightmares about the police encounter that led to the death of his 34-year-old son.
I still get up in that bed in the middle of the night hearing Stephen say, 'Help, help!'" he told us. "And I wake up and it's not a dream. It's reality. It was real."
What really happened outside the Gagliani home in South Carolina was caught on body camera in 2019. Deputies responded to 911 calls about Stephen acting strangely outside the home.
According to court documents, deputies struggled with Stephen while trying to handcuff him. They deployed a taser four times, and a witness reported he was placed in a chokehold. Stephen was unarmed at the time. In later depositions, deputies said they did not believe he posed a threat to himself or others, and he was not charged with a crime.
What followed would be an excruciating several days for the family.
I stayed in the ICU, and he was there for four or five days. And I spent literally the whole time in the room with him," Anthony Gagliani said. "And I sat there, and watched Steven slowly die in front of me."
Officials later ruled Stephen's death was the result of an "undetermined cause while in custody of law enforcement."
In an emailed statement, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department told Inside Your World Investigates, “An independent investigation conducted by the State Law Enforcement Division found the three deputies committed no criminal wrongdoing during the encounter. An internal review determined the three deputies did not violate any department policies during the encounter. All three deputies have long since returned to duty.”
Today, Gagliani faces painful questions about what happened that day.
They did not have to surround him and jump on him and taser him and choke him. Why did they have to do that?" Stephen asked.
Police use of force has become very controversial nationwide, leaving many searching for answers.
According to Fatal Encounters, a website documenting deaths related to police incidents:
"Those taser deaths always interest me because that is a cop who has decided not to kill somebody. He knows that they are not an immediate threat to his person, but those people have to be somehow contained, or restrained, or disabled," Brian Burghart, a former newspaper editor, said. "So when he kills them, what do you think that does to that cop whose hand is on that trigger? I mean, I can't imagine making a decision not to kill someone and killing them, I can't imagine anything worse."
Now, a new tool has the potential to reduce the number of deadly encounters with law enforcement. It's called BolaWrap.
According to its website, the device discharges a Kevlar cord that can wrap around a subject at a range of 10-25 feet. The cord and hooks safely immobilize someone from a distance, allowing officers to approach, without causing injury.
Inside Your World Investigates spoke with Wrap Technologies Vice President of Training Mario Knapp, who told us that's what sets it apart.
Where the BolaWrap separates itself is it’s not a weapon. It’s a force avoidance tool by means of remote restraint," Knapp told us.
Knapp told us the Wrap is so safe, he'd prefer officers use it on his own teenage son.
"I have a 15-year-old son," he said. "If there were 15 officers against my 15-year-old son, I would prefer for all 15 officers to wrap my son simultaneously than any single one of those officers apply any means of conventional force."
It's a resounding endorsement from the makers — but does it actually work in a real-world setting?
We set out to find out, visiting Beaufort, South Carolina. The police department there is one of 600 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. now using the tool.
Sgt. Mikhail Kopylov walked us through a hypothetical scenario, demonstrating the use of the BolaWrap on our reporter Mark Hyman.
You can see the full video below.
Firing the weapon is loud, and sounds like a gunshot, which can be alarming, but there is no pain, instead, the arms are immobilized, allowing officers to move close without putting themselves in danger.
Officers say the tool protects everyone involved: themselves, the public, and the subject they're dealing with, who may be suffering from a mental health crisis, or could be suicidal and posing a threat to themselves.
Right now, Beaufort police have about six BolaWraps and Cpt. George Erdel says the device is already making a difference.
The BolaWrap enables the officer to do something they could not do before, which is basically restrain that person remotely," Captain George Erdel told Inside Your World Investigates. "And it does it without inflicting any kind of pain. That's a groundbreaking option."
Erdel showed us body camera footage of a 2020 incident involving a suicidal man armed with a knife. You can see the moment the wrap is deployed, then, officers move in and safely restrain the man with no injuries.
Erdel told us that not every scenario is perfect for the use of a BolaWrap, but it can make a very big difference when it's the right situation. He believes every agency in the US should have a BolaWrap to reduce the need for officers to use force.
In the training, officers were saying, man, I can think of so many situations where I could have used this before," Captain Erdel told us.
Right now, of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., only about 600 are using the technology. Erdel says that could be due to budget constraints.
"Obviously, money's not infinite. It's a finite resource and it has to be allocated for any number of things," he said, but he told us he hopes that as the device gains traction and awareness, more will be deployed nationwide.
Gagliani believes it could have worked to prevent the tragedy his family faced. He showed us Stephen's room, which has been kept exactly the same since the last day he was there. He read us cards and showed us drawings that Stephen had made for him.
Comforted by the memories of his son, he's pushing for departments to be better trained to deescalate situations and adopt tools that could effectively reduce the need to use force.
"You hear stories about defunding the police. I don't want the police defunded, I want them better trained to avoid another parent going through the nightmare I'm facing," said Gagliani.
For more information about the BolaWrap, visit their website, where you can find body camera footage of real-world uses of the device, as well as information about how the technology works.
Some organizations have expressed opposition to the use of high-tech tools like BolaWrap. According to a recent article published by Human Rights Watch, there is a "danger" that officers will use the tool too frequently "as a short-cut when encountering people with mental health conditions." It argues that the device cannot be used as a substitute for mental health response training.