LOS ANGELES - Police officers facing Democratic convention protesters next month may be armed with paintball guns that shoot balls filled with pepper spray.
The pepper balls, as big around as a nickel, would be used only against protesters who are violent or destroying property - not against peaceful demonstrators, a police spokesman said Monday.
Pepper spray canisters are standard-issue for all officers, but paintball guns would allow police to strike specific troublemakers from a safe distance, Sgt. John Pasquariello said. They also wouldn't need to worry about wind dispersing spray.
''It's a very accurate weapon ... so you can pinpoint people, and then an arrest team would move in,'' he said.
Using the guns would be important, he said, ''because we are certainly outnumbered in a mass demonstration situation and we need tools that can control a large number of people without hurting them.''
Pasquariello said the Police Department has ordered paintball guns but he did not know if they had arrived or if officers had been trained in their use. A final decision on whether they will be deployed during the Aug. 14-17 Democratic National Convention hasn't been reached.
As a tactical measure, Pasquariello would not say how many were ordered.
Paintball is a war game in which players stalk each other with high-powered air guns, firing capsules filled with water-based paint. A stock gun that holds up to 10 balls costs $50 to $250 and semiautomatic models sell for up to $800, said Matt Boggs, a gun technician at I&I Sports in Carson, which sells paintball and martial arts equipment.
The balls have a biodegradable gel-like shell. Instead of paint, however, the projectiles under consideration by police would be filled with pepper spray.
Balls fired from a stock paintgun travel about 240 feet per second, leaving a quarter-sized welt when they strike the skin, Boggs said.
Participants playing at licensed paintball fields are required to wear face and eye protection, he said.
Police are aware of the injury risk, but officers who use non-lethal weapons, such as beanbag-firing shotguns, are trained to fire at the torso and avoid the head, Pasquariello said.
''You want to aim for the chest,'' he said.
When the capsule bursts, the pepper spray drifts up to the nose and eyes.
Protest organizers criticized potential use of the paintball guns, saying the weapons could inflame a crowd rather than quiet it.
''Police tactics can seriously escalate situations that don't need to be escalated, and that's why everybody is calling on them to use restraint,'' said Lisa Fithian of Direct Action Network, an advocacy group formed during the World Trade Organization protests last year in Seattle.
Demonstrators are considering asking police to forgo use of pepper spray altogether during the convention, said Don White, an organizer with the group Mobilization to Protest the DNC 2000, or D2K Network.
''Police can use other techniques that don't impose enormous suffering,'' he said.