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Less Lethal Munitions Still Deadly

Incidents like these probably went a long way to inspiring the development of less lethal munitions used by police at demonstrations that become disruptive and even riotous. Less lethal munitions may work in theory, but over several decades, their use has probably maimed and killed more demonstrators than real bullets.

According to Plumas County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Ed Obayashi, the primary objective for using them is “to inflict pain to gain compliance and to disburse a crowd,” he told USA Today. He added that if demonstrators remain noncompliant with police instructions, “firing on the overall crowd could be justified.”

Less lethal munitions are actually viewed as lifesavers by giving police a “knock down option to disable threats from a safe distance without killing the target.” This further enables police administrators and supervisors to downplay less lethal munitions’ misuse “as conduct violations rather than weaponry problems.”

The three most common types of less lethal munitions are bean bags, rubber bullets, and paintball rounds filled with chemical irritants. As benign as these items may sound, they are at times anything but.

A rubber bullet is actually a hard rubber cylinder, 40 millimeters (mm) in diameter. Some are tipped with a thin layer of sponge or foam. They are fired from an actual military grenade launcher.

A bean bag is a nylon sack full of lead shot, fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. They are not the striped, pillow covering material housing beans many of us remember from our early grade school days.

Either of these may reach velocities approaching 200 mph. If a baseball pitched at 95 mph, striking a batter’s head can maim and even kill the batter, a lead shot­filled nylon bag or a 40 mm diameter hard rubber cylinder traveling at 200 mph can, and often has, maimed and killed protesters.

The use of various “chemical irritants” in today’s already over-polluted world speaks for itself as to lethality levels, especially for a demonstrator who is hit directly in his or her face.

In Los Angeles, California, during the 2000 Democratic National Convention, attorney Carol Sobel was hit between the eyes with a bean bag round as she placidly stood in a peaceful crowd. Later a protester there lost an eye to a less lethal munition. Seven years later, several dozens of migrants’ rights demonstrators were injured when police fired volleys of less lethal munitions at them.

At the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 2001, a student lost an eye to a bean bag round when a riot broke out over a ball game.

In Oakland, California, approximately 60 Iraq War protesters were injured by wooden pellets, cousins to rubber bullets, in 2003. Eight years later, Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was attending an Occupy Oakland demonstration when a bean bag round hit the left side of his skull, fracturing it and damaging his brain. He had to relearn how to speak. “The city ultimately agreed to a $4.5 million settlement with Olsen,” USA Today reports.

In Miami, Florida, attorney Elizabeth Ritter suffered a head injury at a 2003 protest. She was one victim among many. A video surfaced of police supervisors laughing about the use of force a day after a rubber bullet hit her forehead.

In Boston, Massachusetts, after a 2004 Red Sox victory, bystander Victoria Snelgrove was hit in the eye with a paintball round containing chemical irritants. The round entered her brain through her eye, killing her.

Hundreds of protesters across the country sustained less lethal munition injuries at protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

Whether caused by malice, indifference, or lack of training, police have demonstrated on dozens of occasions that they are incapable of using less lethal munitions without maiming or killing people. Yet, if these are taken away, retired Los Angeles County, California Sheriff’s Deputy Sid Heal points out that, “we’re going to have to go to something else, and it will probably be harsher.” 


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