NEW YORK (AP) – Law enforcement calls them “non-lethal” tools for dealing with unruly demonstrations: rubber bullets, pepper spray, batons, pops.
But the now-familiar scenes of riot-gear US police officers clashing with protesters in Lafayette Park opposite the White House and in other cities have criticized the police for saying that the weapons too often escalate tensions and hurt innocent people.
“Seeing riot gear definitely changes the mood,” said Ron Moten, a longtime community organizer in the nation’s capital who demonstrated this weekend. He said it takes away any perception that the agents can be empathetic.
“If I went upstairs to speak to a police officer and I am wrapped in armor holding a shield and a stick, don’t you think they would see me as a threat?”
“When we see riot gear, it costs us black people 400 years back,” he said.
Protesters in Denver arrived at the hospital with injuries from police projectiles that left one person losing an eye and leaving three others with permanent eye injuries, said Prem Subramanian, a doctor who operated on several victims after demonstrations late last month.
“They were not charged with any crime and they came in with devastating eye injuries,” said Subramanian, adding that he was so upset that he complained to city officials, who promised to investigate any abuse. “We are learning the consequences of using these weapons.”
He said the injuries rivaled what he saw in treating shell damage to the eyes of soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center injured by explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rubber bullets and similar projectiles have blinded at least 20 individuals, ages 16 to 59, since the protests began after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Other tactics have been seen in Lafayette Park, where police used chemicals to break a peaceful protest minutes before President Donald Trump posed for photos outside a nearby church this month. In Buffalo, an officer used a baton to push a 75-year-old man to the ground before that officer and others marched by while collecting blood under the man’s head.
Amnesty International has questioned whether equipping officers “in a way more suitable for a battlefield can remind them that confrontation and conflict are inevitable.”
The increasing use of less lethal weapons is “cause for great concern” and can sometimes violate international law, said Agnes Callamard, director of Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and a UN adviser.
She said that the “rationale for less lethal weapons is legitimate” after the courts asked that law enforcement officers be given equipment that would allow them to respond proportionally if necessary. In 1990, the United Nations issued basic principles on its use.
Projectiles caused 53 deaths and 300 permanent disabilities in 1,984 serious injuries registered by medical workers in more than a dozen countries from 1990 to 2015, said Rohini Haar, an emergency doctor in Oakland, California, and lead author of the 2016 Physicians for Human Rights report collected with civil rights organizations.
She said that “there are so many cases of abuse, it seems almost impossible to use them correctly.”
Whether rubber, foam, or bean bags, they abandon bullet-powered weapons and should not be used against protesters because they can mutilate and bounce or ricochet unpredictably, Haar said.
Police, private security forces, and military units are trying to cause pain or incapacitate people with more than 75 types of rubber or plastic bullets from manufacturers in countries such as the U.S., Brazil, China, Israel, South Africa, and South Korea, according to the report , “Lethal in Disguise.”
Wade Carpenter, a police chief in Park City, Utah, said the tools are needed when peaceful gatherings are “hijacked by individuals who have come in for a disgraceful purpose to cause the riots, the looting, things like that.”
Many police forces “are very rigorous in their training,” said Carpenter, an official with the International Police Chiefs Association, which has 32,000 police officers in 167 countries. “They’re very responsible, and others, you know, it’s across the board.”
Officers target lawbreakers who attack the police with rocks or baseball bats, but sometimes less than deadly options are “not perfectly accurate, so that’s always a risk and those are calculated risks,” Carpenter said.
It’s not just projectiles. Chemical irritants, banned in warfare by international law since 1925, have also been criticized.
Chemicals sometimes cause violent coughs, a pandemic concern. A 2012 study of more than 6,700 U.S. Army soldiers concluded that a common riot control chemical more than doubled the likelihood of acute respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia.
At the beginning of this month, the mayor and police chief of Seattle banned tear gas for 30 days before a federal judge ordered the city to stop using pepper spray, flashy grenades, and rubber bullets. A Dallas judge made a similar decision.
Following a federal lawsuit, a judge in Denver temporarily restricted the use of projectiles and tear gas by the police, with police likely violating constitutional rights.
In early June, the Austin, Texas police chief said his department would no longer fire projectiles with beanbags at the crowd after two protesters were hospitalized after being shot in the head, including a 16-year-old boy.
In New York City, the country’s largest police force has not used rubber bullets or tear gas during protests. During a city council hearing, police officials were pressured whether officers should even be armed with sticks after the city’s mayor promised “minimal strength.”
First Deputy Police Commissioner Benjamin Tucker told councilors that helmets and bats needed to protect officers are “not a showcase.”
Carpenter, the Utah chief, said Floyd’s death made all officers feel that they had “tarnished all their insignia” and not relishing the violence accompanying some of the protests.
“We live, many of us, in the communities we control,” Carpenter said. “Unfortunately, there have been cases like this that have really created a wedge between officers and the communities they serve and love.”
Ashraf Khalil, Associate Press writer in Washington, contributed to this report.
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