United Tactical Systems sells PepperBall projectiles, launchers, and related accessories to police, prison, and immigration authorities around the world.
Note: This company profile was written as part of AFSC's 2022 report Equipped for War: Exposing Militarized Policing in California.
United Tactical Systems LLC (UTS), a.k.a. PepperBall Technologies, is a privately-owned company headquartered in Lake Forest, Illinois. PepperBall was originally developed in 1996 by Jaycor—a military company that specialized in manufacturing electronic products and devices for the Department of Defense (DOD)—as a "non-lethal weapon alternative for government agencies and commercial markets." The company has since changed ownership multiple times and was traded on the NASDAQ until 2009. In 2014, it was incorporated as United Tactical Systems. Led by CEO and owner Ron Johnson, UTS employs 120 people and generates an estimated $11.8 million in annual sales.
UTS specializes in designing, manufacturing, and selling irritant projectiles called PepperBalls, projectile launchers, and tactical gear. PepperBall projectiles are small plastic spheres that contain an irritant powder derived from peppers. Unlike pepper spray, they can be shot from a distance by single shot or "military-style format" projectile launchers. When an irritant projectile is shot at a person, it bursts upon impact and releases irritant powder intended to disable the person.
UTS markets its PepperBall projectiles and launchers primarily to law enforcement, military, prison, and private security agencies. Contracts with the DOD show that the company has supplied both the Army and Navy with projectiles, launchers, security equipment, training rounds, and related accessories for use as a "non-lethal" alternative for controlling crowds, protests, and civil disobedience; denying area access; warding off armed attackers and standoffs; and conducting checkpoints.
UTS has also supplied U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with $7.4 million worth of PepperBall projectiles, launchers, riot control equipment, training devices, and related accessories, accounting for approximately 70% of the company's overall federal contracts. In contributing to the militarization of border policing, UTS frames migrants as dangerous individuals from which officers "are expected to protect the border safely against." According to the company, CBP agents can use PepperBalls to "protect everyone safely" against "illegal aliens, rock throwers, rioters, and more."
UTS also contracts with federal prison and police agencies. Between 2008 and 2022, the company provided just over $1.4 million worth of projectiles, launchers, holsters, security equipment, loaders, and related accessories to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) for a wide range of uses, including cell extraction, "inmate control," building security, "high risk transports," suspect apprehension, crowd control, and vehicle interdiction.
Agencies in at least 20 states, including Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia, have purchased PepperBall projectiles, launchers, and related accessories.
In California, at least 24 law enforcement agencies that responded to our records requests have purchased PepperBall live round projectiles, FTC launchers, tactical accessories, riot control vests, and other equipment, either directly from UTS or from law enforcement equipment distributors such as Adamson Police Products and LC Action Police Supply.
UTS markets its PepperBall products to police as safe, "non-lethal" alternatives to firearms. However, police have routinely, and sometimes fatally, deployed PepperBalls against crowds, protestors, and bystanders. In 2004, for example, a college student in Boston died after police struck her in the eye with a pepper-pellet projectile during a World Series celebration. Since then, police have improperly fired PepperBalls at Occupy protestors at the University of California-Davis and in Denver, Colo. in 2011 and 2012, respectively; at anti-Trump protestors in Phoenix, Ariz. in 2017; and at protestors, legal observers, and journalists during Black Lives Matter protests in Dallas, Texas, Denver, Colo., Omaha, Neb., and other cities across the U.S. in 2020.
Numerous cities have faced lawsuits stemming from injuries caused by police officers' use of PepperBalls. In 2021, for example, a federal lawsuit was filed in the case of Shaiitarrio Brown and Brittany King, a couple targeted with PepperBalls during a 2020 George Floyd protest in Denver, Colo. The lawsuit alleges that King, who was pregnant at the time she was shot with PepperBall projectiles, suffered a broken hand, chemical burns, bruises, and pregnancy complications. Similar lawsuits alleging improper police use of PepperBalls and/or PepperBall-related injuries have been filed in, for example, California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah.
Outside of the U.S., PepperBall projectiles have been used by the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank and by police officers against protestors in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, and Turkey.