What is ‘less-lethal’ force? And why were Long Beach police using it during a protest?

Law enforcement agencies worldwide maintain a vast array of weapons and defense systems––from high-caliber rifles to pepper-spray canisters.

Less-lethal, sometimes called non-lethal, munitions are just a step below the deadly force police use when they fire a gun. The less-dangers options give police another avenue to try to control suspects or force someone to obey their commands, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe.

As protests continue over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black men and women at the hands of police, the way officers have used less-lethal weapons against demonstrators has drawn criticism across the country.

In Long Beach, officers were frequently seen shooting into crowds with large foam rounds, in one case, prompting a journalist to go to the hospital after he was hit in the neck.

As the name suggests, less-lethal rounds aren’t meant to kill, but a study published in the peer-reviewed BMJ Open medical journal found there are instances where these projectiles can be deadly.

The study looked at injuries from rubber and plastic bullets used in arrests and protests from January 1990 until June 2017. Out of 1,984 people, 53 of them died, while 300 “suffered permanent disabilities,” according to the study. Where the projectile hit a person, the distance from where the round was fired and the speed of subsequent medical aid determined how fatal the injury was, the study showed.

So how do Long Beach police use less-lethal force?

LBPD arsenal

The Long Beach Police Department currently possesses less-lethal ammunition including 40-millimeter foam projectiles that can be fired from marked 12-gauge shotguns and specially designed launchers, according to the department’s manual.

LBPD Training Division Sgt. Paul Gallo said officers undergo half a day of training to learn how to use the less-lethal rounds in addition to yearly training in the field.

Officers are told to use their best judgement to determine at what distances they can fire less-lethal rounds, but the manual states the manufacturer’s recommendations should be taken into account. Most foam ammunition manufacturers recommend using them from about 5 to 130 feet.

Police only use department-approved munitions, like the foam rounds, which may be used in crowd-control situations, the LBPD manual states.

When can police use them?

Like many other departments, the LBPD trains its officers to use different levels of force based on the situation.

According to the department’s manual, less-lethal munitions should be used to incapacitate a specific target, who police believe “engages in riotous, aggressive or combative behavior to include throwing rocks, bottles or other dangerous projectiles at citizens or officers.”

Officers are instructed to aim for the arms below the elbow, the stomach and the legs.

Protesters in Long Beach on May 31 came face-to-face with the LBPD’s foam projectile launchers after officers on Pine Avenue and 3rd Street were attacked by some agitators mixed in the crowd, LBPD Chief Robert Luna told the City Council earlier this week.

“Launchers were used after the officers were attacked with rocks, bottles and M100s,” he said. “Those launchers are target-specific––at only individuals who are attacking the officers.”

Missing the target

While Luna said police aimed for specific agitators, the projectiles at times hit other people. In one instance, KPCC radio journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez was hit in the throat after interviewing a protester. He later posted gruesome images of his neck where a projectile struck him.

Brian Higgins, a former New Jersey police chief and current adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said collateral damage happens with less-lethal munitions. He mentioned a photographer who lost vision in her eye after being hit with a projectile during a protest. Photojournalist Linda Tirado posted pictures of the damage to her eye on Twitter.

Tools like rubber or foam bullets are “not meant to be fired into a crowd indiscriminately, but for a specific target,” Higgins said.

The LBPD agrees, according to Sgt. Gallo, but he said there’s always a risk the rounds will miss their intended target, especially in a crowd.

“People move,” he said. “The moment that someone is firing a 40 millimeter round, and that person moves and they are no longer in that range, then that round will continue.”

Calls for change

The recent protests have led to an increase in the scrutiny of police policies, as activists call for less police funding and more reforms.

Representatives of the Black Lives Matter Los Angeles Chapter and the Los Angeles Community Action Network announced on Wednesday that they want to end police use of rubber projectiles, batons and other less-lethal ammunition, particularly against peaceful protesters.

Standing in front of Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, LACAN Executive Director Pete White emptied a bag of used rubber bullet shells and casings along with other items he said were used against participants in protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.
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