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Sheep and Sheepdogs: Use and Abuse of Non-Lethal Crowd Control Weapons

by Benjamin Tschirhart  

To understand the true gap between the role of the police as understood by the public (to protect and serve) and as understood by the police themselves, one need look no further than a protest or public demonstration. Here, especially when provoked, police quickly assume their own preferred role – keeping the public “in line.” The violence with which this job is undertaken depends on multiple factors, including social norms and contextual violence. There are groups attempting to mitigate police violence by changing the social background which enables it – a daunting task to be sure but not entirely hopeless.

In this spirit, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (“INCLO”) along with Physicians for Human Rights (“PHR”) undertook a study in 2016 of the use of crowd control weapons (“CCW”) by state actors, examining their use in the context of “alarming trends in policing across the world,” which include growing authoritarianism, lack of transparency on police violence, and a lack of accountability which their 2016 report “Lethal in Disguise” holds responsible for the injuries and the deaths of “thousands of people worldwide.”

The follow-up report “Lethal in Disguise 2” (“LiD2”) addresses the evolution of “less lethal” weapons and their use worldwide; it also examines changes in medical understanding of these weapons and their application, along with the threats they pose to “meaningful exercise of assembly, association and free expression rights.” The report addresses CCWs in three broad categories: (1) Kinetic Impact Projectiles (“KIPs”) – such as rubber bullets or bean bag rounds, (2) Chemical Irritants – like pepper spray and tear gas, and (3) and “other weapons.” This last category spans a wide array of CCWs from water cannons to acoustic weapons and drones. 

In its executive summary, LiD2 cites the numerous public protests that have “surged across the world in recent years” as popular movements have staged protests against economic injustice, authoritarian governments, and ironically, police violence. The report calls for closer accountability for law enforcement, as their propensity to respond to largely peaceful protests with disproportionate force and violence or oppression often “leads to acrimony and further escalation of conflict.” It explicitly blames the “precipitous use of weapons against peaceful, unarmed people” for the “thousands of people worldwide who have been seriously injured or killed by [CCWs] and the chilling effect of this violence on millions more.”

The report speaks most vehemently against KIPs, concluding that at distances close enough to use them accurately, they become very dangerous (injuring or killing 2,190 people from 2016 to 2021) while when used at greater (“safer”) distances, they are too inaccurate, often hitting or injuring bystanders. They also note the improper use of tear gas canisters as KIPs. Medical literature reports over 100,000 injuries and at least 14 deaths “due to the trauma inflicted by the canister.”

Conclusion: “it is doubtful that these weapons can be used in a manner that is both safe and effective in a protest setting.” Chemical Irritants broadly meet with less censure than KIPs, although the report admits there is little study on the long-term effects of these chemicals and that exposure “may result in significant psychological effects, including potential long-term disability.”

Finally, the miscellaneous category of “other” weapons – including ancient weapons like clubs together with cutting-edge drone technology – which is “the most concerning CCW development in the past five years.” Civil rights activists and experts call attention to the striking conspicuous lack of regulation and procedural transparency associated with these weapons and their use by law enforcement. Their designation as “non-lethal” often works to lessen concerns about their use, conveying the erroneous impression that accountability and control are somehow unnecessary due to their reduced lethality.

One of the most unsettling phenomena discussed in LiD2 is the attempt by government and law enforcement agencies to forbid or withhold medical attention to people who have been marked, injured, or otherwise affected by CCWs. Alternatively, they sometimes also attempt to gather information on protesters using health care establishments, pressuring medical workers to report these people when they seek medical attention after encounters with law enforcement – sometimes “detaining those injured by CCWs at medical facilities.” These practices have both a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech by protesters and the potential to exacerbate injuries from CCWs, which itself contributes to that same chilling effect.

Wade Carpenter, chief of police of Park City Utah, claims that “Rallies basically spin out of control when they’ve been hijacked by individuals … With a nefarious purpose to create the riots, the looting … Then, obviously, law enforcement has to come in and try their best to create a safe resolution and try to restore order.” Of course, this sounds appropriate. But anyone who examines video footage of recent conflicts where the police have used CCWs can find many instances where they have been deployed proactively against peaceful or passively resistant people who are doing nothing more than exercising their legal rights to assembly and free speech. 

There have even been instances where the origins of violence have been traced to provocateurs secretly working with the police and encouraging the use of violence in order to provide justification for the use of violent force in turn by the police.

Bringing these facts to light and into the public view is the first step toward changing the status quo which allows police to use violence and repression against peaceful populations with little to no oversight or fear of consequences. A medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights says “we know we’re capturing sort of the tip of the iceberg … The vast majority of injuries – even significant severe injuries – go unreported.”  

Source: International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations, Physicians for Human Rights -Lethal in Disguise 2

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