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by The Republican Newsroom Tuesday July 29, 2008, 10:39 PM
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Republican photo \ DAVE ROBACK
This is the device that contains a hard, blue projectile sponge the size of a racquetball that can disable a suspect instantly. The rubbery projectile is 1.6 inches in diameter. EASTHAMPTON - When Detective William D. Mielke got the call at home that police were dealing with a knife-wielding man at a downtown convenience store, he stopped at the police station and picked up the "less-than-lethal launcher."

The weapon, which the department has had for about 18 months, looks like a sawed-off shotgun and shoots a hard, blue projectile sponge the size of a racquetball that can disable a suspect instantly. The rubbery projectile is 1.6 inches in diameter.

When Mielke got to the Pride Convenience Store on Union Street in the early morning on July 31, 2007, he teamed up with two other officers who also had tactical training and began to approach Louis A. Rivera, 51, of Springfield, who was yelling in Spanish and waving around a large knife with a curved blade.

An officer using a large shield was flanked one side by an officer with a rifle and Mielke on the other side, holding the less-than-lethal launcher. They began to approach Rivera, yelling for him to drop the knife, but he did not comply so a round was fired.

"He was momentarily stunned. He dropped the knife. It just shocked him. Sgt. (William E.) Kelly took him down," Mielke recalled.

Rivera was hit in the upper thigh and transported to the hospital as a precaution. He suffered a large bruise. The case against him is still pending in Hampshire Superior Court.

Authorities say Rivera is the same man who was shot by a Holyoke police officer using a service revolver on July 22 under dramatically different circumstances.

In Holyoke, Rivera was in a crowded McDonald's restaurant in downtown and he is accused of charging toward officers with the knife. Two canisters of pepper spray had failed to deter him.

He was shot in the shoulder, treated at Baystate Medical Center and is now in another undisclosed facility. His arraignment in Holyoke District Court is expected to take place later this week.

In Easthampton, the incident happened outdoors, lasted 40 minutes and police were able to cordon off a large area. Rivera did not make any move toward officers, although he tried to cut a line to a gas pump, police said.

Police Chief Bruce W. McMahon said that the department's two less-than-lethal launchers, purchased at a cost of $1,200 each, were ideal for this type of situation. At the time of last year's incident, they were kept at the station but are now in the trunks of two police cruisers.

The launchers have been used four times by police, but in the other three incidents the suspects chose to drop their weapons, McMahon said. It is not suitable for use when a suspect has a gun and it is aimed at a suspect's legs, not their chest or head where it could cause a more serious injury, he said.

"It has incredible accuracy. A lot of times the person making the threats sees the size of the barrel and drops whatever they have," McMahon said.

Easthampton police opted for the non-lethal launcher over other choices such as Tasers or weapons that shoot tear gas because there were concerns about each of them.

"The sponge round feels like a sponge except when it hits you. It hurts. It will leave a good size bruise and a big welt," McMahon said.
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