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A truncheon or baton (also called a cosh, billystick, billy club, nightstick, sap, blackjack, stick) is essentially a stick of less than arms-length, usually made of wood, plastic, or metal, and carried by law enforcement, corrections, security, and (to a less common degree) military personnel for less-lethal self-defense, as well as control and to disperse combative and non-compliant subjects. A truncheon may be used to strike, jab, block, and aid in the application of armlocks. Truncheons are used to a lesser extent by non-officials because of their easy concealment, and are outlawed in many jurisdictions.
In the Victorian era, police in London carried truncheons about one foot long called bully clubs (from the word bully, a nickname for police officers). This impact weapon has developed into several varieties available today. The truncheon is a straitstick (see below) made from wood or a synthetic material, approximately one and a quarter inches in diameter, and from 18 to 36 inches (910 mm) long, with a fluted handle to aid in gripping. Truncheons are often ornamented with their organization’s coats of arms. Longer truncheons are called “riot batons” because of their use in riot control.
Truncheons probably developed as a marriage between the club/mace and the staff of office/sceptre.
Making straight batons of rubber gives a softer impact. Some of the kinetic energy bends and compresses the rubber and bounces off when the object is struck. The Russian police standard issue baton is rubber, except in places, like Siberia, cold enough that the rubber can become brittle and break if struck against something.
The traffic baton is red to make it more visible when being used as a signaling aid when directing traffic.
Until the mid-1990s British police officers carried traditional wooden truncheons of a sort which had changed little from the Victorian era. After the early 1990s, forces replaced truncheons with side-handle and collapsible batons for all but ceremonial duties.
Per the use-of-force policies of most American law enforcement agencies and departments, a baton may be used in a use of force situation when deploying a firearm would be inappropriate or unjustified, but greater force is needed than that which can be met by bare hands.
A peace officer not equipped with a baton may be forced to choose between two extremes in responding to criminal assault: bare hands or firearms. Thus, the baton fills an intermediate role in the weapons available to peace officers, and gives flexibility to defend against physical attack proportionately.
If a peace officer is fired upon by a suspect with a handgun from a distance of several meters, the situation may dictate the officer’s best option is seeking cover, and returning fire with his or her sidearm, if the officer were so equipped. If an unarmed suspect passively resists arrest, and is not actively assaultive against the arresting officer, striking the suspect with a baton in order to gain compliance may (or may not, depending on the use-of-force policy of the officer’s department) be thought excessive force.
Between these extremes (in terms of the threat posed to the officer), a baton would prove useful. If an unarmed suspect tried to attack an officer at arm’s length, and the officer was of lesser strength and size, and couldn’t defend against the suspect without using weapons, it would be fair and prudent for the officer to subdue with baton strikes to non-critical areas of the body. Baton strikes may be justified and ideal in an attack by many unarmed suspects.
Before the 1970s, it was common for law enforcement in the United Kingdom to “skull” a suspect (hit him or her on the head) in order to stun them or knock them unconscious. However, this was unreliable and could be fatal. Civil lawsuits and claims of police brutality resulted in better training to officers. In modern police training it is not permitted to hit the skull, sternum, spine or groin unless the situation is such that such an attack is unavoidable. Now the primary targets are nerves like the common peroneal nerve, or large muscles like the quadriceps or biceps.
Unless otherwise justified (as in a deadly force scenario), the officer avoids directing baton strikes towards the head, neck, face, spine, organs, kneecaps, elbow joints, collarbone, or groin. Strikes that hit there can cause serious or permanent injury or death. Directing baton strikes towards non-critical areas of the body, such as arms and legs, is less likely to produce serious or permanent injury or death.
Despite precautions to minimize blunt trauma, a baton strike to a non-critical area of the body can still be lethal. For example, a strike to a leg can cause a blood clot to develop that if is not detected and treated, can kill.