In 2023 the Seattle Police Department (SPD) quietly ended its use of the expensive, rarely used BolaWrap, a lasso-like restraint device designed to loop around a person’s arms or legs. When SPD launched the tool in 2021, the department heralded it as part of the plan to stop shooting people holding knives, a plan that ultimately failed.

As the City considers spending more than a million dollars on new gunshot detection technology, the BolaWrap’s failure serves as a good reminder that SPD spends a lot of money on dumb, often useless tools under the guise of innovating their public safety strategies.

SPD rolled out BolaWrap in 2021 after multiple controversial cases where SPD officers shot and killed someone who was holding a knife. That year, then-Director of the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Andrew Myerberg wrote a memo highlighting the unnecessary killings of Terry Caver in 2020 and Derek Hayden in 2021. In both cases the two men appeared to be in crisis, and the OPA found that officers failed to de-escalate the situation before using deadly force. In a memo, Myerberg told then-interim Seattle Chief of Police Adrian Diaz that both shootings could have been avoided and that the department needed to “give officers the tools to make sure that this never happens again.” Myerberg mentioned the department had started testing BolaWraps as a possible new non-lethal tool.

After the initial round of press releases from SPD about the BolaWrap program, the pilot mostly flew under the radar. But then, a perfect opportunity to test the tool came in July 2023. 

Multiple 911 callers reported a stabbing downtown and described the suspect to police. Three officers responded, K-9 Officer Kame Spencer, Officer Josh Ginter, and Officer Connor Hazelwood. Hazelwood brought his BolaWrap device with him. Spencer found the man first and began following him up the street, leaving her K-9 in her car. The suspect called Spender a terrorist and threatened to kill her. Then Ginter and Hazelwood arrived. The three officers said the man appeared to be holding a knife. As the man began yelling what sounded like, “shoot me shoot me now,” Hazelwood launched his BolaWrap. In an OPA report, Hazelwood described watching the kevlar rope hit the man before the rope flopped to the ground. About a second later, Ginter shot the man in the stomach and hand, critically injuring him. The man survived.

The incident seemed strikingly similar to the cases that Myerberg had once told SPD to make sure never happened again. Spencer brought no less-lethal tools to the scene, leaving both her pepper spray and 40 mm soft round launcher in her car. Hazelwood opted to bring the BolaWrap rather than his Taser, saying the suitcase that the man carried might have blocked the Taser prongs. Ginter approached the scene as “lethal cover” for the other two officers, he said, with his firearm out more or less the whole time. OPA investigators determined none of the officers violated the department’s use-of-force policies, and that while the BolaWrap failed to work, the officers did attempt to de-escalate the situation with the device.

Whether this incident contributed to the end of the BolaWrap program is unclear. SPD said the department disbanded the pilot in 2023 but mentioned this case only as a footnote of a larger report. In the report, SPD recorded it had used the device just three times in 2023.

The lack of any public announcement about ending the program stood in stark contrast to the “media blitz” SPD put on when they first started using the device. SPD's Office of Public Affairs said the BolaWrap was not effective the three times officers used it and did not meet the department's needs. The officers who used the device has negative reviews, SPD said. Members of the Force Review Board also recommended against the department using the device. In total, the department spent about $17,000 on the BolaWrap device's refill cassettes, though the actual devices and holsters were loaned to the department.

In 2021, the City agreed to restore more than $4 million for SPD’s discretionary spending fund in part based on the justification that SPD needed the money to invest in BolaWrap technology. The decision seemed rooted in the idea that new technologies can stop police violence. But cops often ignore less-lethal options in favor of their guns. In the SPD cases where they killed Caver, Hayden, and Charleena Lyles, no officer used the less lethal tools that SPD already equipped them with, such as Tasers, pepper spray, a baton, or a shield. Still, the City thought the BolaWrap, already a ridiculous concept for a device, would suddenly do the trick. 

Right now, we already know SPD wants to spend millions on gunshot detection, cameras, and automatic license plate readers. Plus, this is a small thing, but they want to buy these dumb little contactless business cards for their command staff that cost about $100 a pop. These technologies drive the growth of our already massive policing budget, with very little apparent return on investment.