These past few weeks, we’ve seen countless examples of ‘less lethal’ police weapons being used against protesters in the U.S., including rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and sponge grenades. Although these weapons—which all have names that make them sound like toys—are certainly less lethal than traditional bullets, they can still result in injuries, permanent disfigurement and even death. Given the number of times these weapons have been used on protesters in the last two weeks—and particularly as the battle over the need for police reform continues—it’s important to understand what these weapons actually are and what kinds of injuries they can inflict.
A rubber bullet is a rubber, or rubber-coated, projectile that can be fired from either a standard firearm or from a dedicated riot gun. Although they are indeed less lethal than a standard bullet, they can still disable, disfigure and even kill. Studies have shown that rubber bullets can cause fractures and damage nerves, tendons and internal organs. Getting hit in the eye, spine or skull with a rubber bullet is especially dangerous.
Guidelines for using rubber bullets state that they should be aimed “against the lower body of a violent individual when a substantial risk exists of immediate serious injury to either a law enforcement official or a member of the public,” and that they should never be aimed at the head or torso. Police are also warned against firing at the ground, as that can cause a rubber bullet to ricochet.
Police are not required to document their use of rubber bullets and there are no nationally agreed upon standards for their use, which means we don’t know how many people are injured by them each year.
A beanbag round is a small fabric pillow filled with lead pellets designed to be fired from a regular 12 gauge shotgun. Beanbag rounds are meant to hit a person’s leg or chest only, and are not meant to be aimed at the neck or head, as that can cause serious injury.
Getting hit by a bean bag round is extremely painful, and can result in serious injury, as was recently the case with two Austin-area protesters, Brad Levi Ayala and Justin Howell, who were both hit by bean bag rounds by the Austin police. Both Ayala and Howell were hospitalised after being hit, with Ayala needing to undergo neurological testing and Howell listed as being in critical condition.
Although police are supposed to aim at lower extremities to avoid hitting the neck, face, skull or spine, the accuracy of these rounds is limited, especially at distances of greater than six meters.
A sponge grenade is a bullet-shaped projectile with a foam rubber nose and a high-density plastic body that is fired from a grenade launcher. The foam nose is meant to spread the projectile’s impact over a larger area, a feature that has made it one of the most commonly used types of less-lethal projectiles. Even so, sponge grenades can also cause serious injury or death, especially if protesters are hit at close range or in sensitive areas such as the face, skull, spine or neck. As with other less lethal projectile weapons, police are not supposed to aim for the face or neck directly.
The photojournalist Linda Tirado was reportedly blinded after being hit in the eye with what she described as a rubber bullet while covering a recent protest, though a spokesperson for the Minneapolis Police Department said they only used “40 mm foam marking rounds” against the crowds. Although the police department did not specify a specific brand, it appears likelyTirado was injured by a type of sponge grenade. Whether it was a sponge grenade, a rubber bullet or something else, the effect is still the same; Tirado was permanently blinded in the injured eye.
The repeated use of less lethal weapons against protestors, and the corresponding injuries is a serious cause for concern. Their use also falls into a grey area when it comes to international law: The United Nations Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement recommends using rubber bullets only when police are facing an “imminent threat,” and only aiming at the lower extremities is advised. As images of police using violent methods against peaceful protesters abound on social media, it’s clear these guidelines aren’t being followed.
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