By Rohini Haar and Brian Castner
In 2020, the use of less-lethal weapons in the United States, already overused, took a sharp upturn during the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests. In response, last month, the U.S. House of Representatives formed a commission of inquiry to investigate the health effects of one such weapon: tear gas. Such research is welcome and badly needed. However, tear gas is only part of a larger story. While well-intentioned, the House missed an opportunity to address a wider and more dangerous issue: the use of “less-lethal” projectiles against crowds.
In protecting basic human rights and civil liberties, it is critical to better understand and regulate projectiles — they are dangerous and poorly studied weapons.
Regardless of their specific characteristics, all less-lethal projectiles work by the same principle: they inflict blunt trauma, pain, and intimidation on individuals, while attempting to limit the chances of death or disability as compared to live ammunition. While the weapons certainly do cause shock and pain, avoiding death and disability has not been so straightforward.
Having studied the health impacts of chemical irritants (such as tear gas), as well as kinetic impact projectiles and other less-lethal weapons, we know that projectiles equally, and perhaps more so than chemical irritants, cause dramatic, long-lasting, and very clear harm.
Less-lethal projectiles are known colloquially by many names: rubber bullets, foam rounds, sponge rounds, bean bags, scatter shot, baton rounds.
These multifarious terms underscore that the projectiles are not a single thing but rather a variety of weapons with myriad shapes, characteristics and components. Some are plastic or PVC, some are rubber, some are wood, and some contain metal. Some are single projectiles aimed at a single target; these kinetic impact projectiles are often fired from 40mm grenade launchers.
Others contain multiple projectiles. Traditional “rubber bullets” consist of many small chunks of hard rubber in a shotgun shell, and, when fired, often hit multiple targets, both the person the police officer was aiming at, as well as anyone who happened to be standing nearby. Bean bag rounds, frequently used in 2020, contain hundreds of plastic or metal pellets inside a small synthetic bag, hitting individuals with powerful force, especially when they target the face or are launched from short distances.
Each year, manufacturers produce newer and more powerful ammunition and launchers, and encourage police departments to apply for federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase the newest weapons.
But, from initial design to actual use, there are massive gaps in the medical and ballistics information available, and regulation of these weapons is lacking. There is no transparent public data on how companies design these weapons or test them to ensure they are safe. Many police departments delegate training on these weapons to the manufacturers themselves, and few U.S. police departments publish protocols on the use of specific weapons.
When we spoke to officers, they noted at best a few hours of training on all crowd control processes, and after-actions reports by police departments across the nation on their response to the BLM protests show a broad pattern of being under-trained and over-militarized. When projectiles are used, few, if any, police departments conduct reviews checking whether their own policies on use of force were followed, or follow up with those they maimed (see examples from Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere).
Amnesty International documented 125 cases of unlawful use of force in 40 states and the District of Columbia in response to BLM protests, many involving less-lethal weapons. An open-source investigation by Physicians for Human Rights identified 115 people who were shot in the head with less-lethal projectiles. Many of these victims received permanent head injuries and vision loss as a result.
Both of these investigations reveal only a fraction of the overall level of violence, and the true number of injuries–especially of those who are most marginalized and may not have social media accounts–is likely several times greater.
Systematic reviews we conducted on 25 years of data on the health impacts of less-lethal projectiles highlight more than 50 deaths and 300 people with permanent injuries, almost 90% of which were permanent vision loss. Again, these are undercounts, but nevertheless confirm the lethality of these means.
Law enforcement in the U.S. frequently notes that projectiles are used to protect public safety, prevent riots, or to deter specific individuals from violent action. However, recent videos posted to social media document that in many cases where kinetic impact projectiles were used, the targets were unarmed, peaceful protestors who were only exercising their human right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Rather than enabling the safe expression of protestors’ Constitutional rights, many police departments initiated violence at either arbitrary deadlines (like curfews), or declared an entire assembly unlawful because of the actions of a very few within a crowd, often using less-lethal projectiles as an inappropriate tool of dispersal.
To truly understand the scope of injuries, as well as the use and abuse of these weapons in practice and their impact on our Constitutional rights, it is critical to have more transparency on (1) what police departments purchase from which manufacturers, (2) what testing, protocols, and training do manufacturing companies carry out to ensure the quality and safety of these weapons, and (3) how many of the weapons are used, what injuries they caused, if use of force guidelines were respected, and was there accountability if not.
Even without this additional data, some points are already clear. There is no place for multi-projectile weapons, such as traditional rubber bullets, or “stinger balls,” that explode to send rubber pellets in all directions. A police officer is unable to specifically target such weapons to an individual, and so instead they injure and intimidate an entire crowd. If a police department would not have a use of force guideline that allows their officers to randomly swing a baton and hit everyone in a crowd, how can they use multiple-shot rubber bullets or stinger ball grenades?
In addition, the uses for single-projectile weapons, such as sponge rounds, are limited in a protest situation. These rounds are inaccurate at long range, potentially deadly at very short range, and unlawful for use in generally dispersing a crowd. Decades of data show that lax regulation is resulting in increased use and increased harm. Congress has made a strong push for an inquiry into tear gas, another concerning weapon, but it is critical that they extend that inquiry into projectiles as well.
Rohini Haar, MD, MPH is an Emergency Medicine physician in Oakland, CA and adjunct professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health. She serves as medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights.
Brian Castner is the weapons expert in Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Programme, and a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer in the United States Air Force.