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Less-Lethal Weapons That Are Actually Lethal


Rubber bullets, beanbags - these are some of the everyday terms used to describe munitions that can, in fact be, very dangerous, items that have been used to disperse recent protests across the country. An investigation by USA Today and Kaiser Health News shows that so-called less-lethal munitions have been seriously injuring people for decades, even killing them. Jay Hancock worked on that investigation, and we started by talking about what kinds of projectiles police have been firing into crowds at recent demonstrations.

JAY HANCOCK: You read about the term rubber bullets a lot, which is kind of a casual catch-all term to describe these things, which really isn't super accurate. Some of them, they're essentially paintballs with chemical irritant - pepper chemicals - inside them, and they burst upon impact. Some of them are called beanbag rounds, which are shot out of a 12-gauge shotgun. And instead of birdshot coming out of the shotgun, it's all encased in a bag which comes out and hits you with a big thwack and can really injure as well. Even these things called sponge rounds or foam rounds, they sound like they're almost toys, but they can really seriously injure people.

CHANG: And what are these projectiles normally designed for? Like, are police using them correctly?

HANCOCK: It's unclear what they ought to be used for because there's no guidelines. That's one of the things we found. But there's a general understanding among law enforcement. It's that these projectiles should not be used for crowd management, i.e., riot control. They're generally sold as ways to deal with uncooperative individual people who are breaking the law as a way to bring people under control that is less than lethal and does not involve lead deadly bullets.

CHANG: When did police start using these kinds of tools to disperse the crowds? Do we know?

HANCOCK: They've been around for decades. And they sort of picked up popularity in the early 2000s. The scale with which we've seen these projectiles used - the law enforcement experts that we talked to called the use now this year in 2020 unprecedented.

CHANG: Does anyone have a theory for why using these tools, the popularity of using these tools has spiked so intensely?

HANCOCK: I would say it's two things. One, there's been so much justifiable focus on the deadly use of force by police that anything less than deadly use of force sort of doesn't get paid attention to. The other reason is just what people describe to us as a severe lack of training among police forces and law enforcement in general in crowd management techniques. It's not something that the average officer has to deal with every day. And when they do have to confront situations with large numbers of people, which it must be said sometimes pose a danger to police - there have been incidents where people throw bricks at cops and pose a danger to cops - this is the tool they have at hand. And this is the tool that they have in a situation where they haven't been trained well to handle hundreds of potentially hostile people.

CHANG: I mean, are you getting the sense that now there does seem to be a different push to use these tools differently?

HANCOCK: I think there is a recognition among law enforcement that if these sorts of street confrontations are going to continue, that they need to become better at this. We interviewed lots of experts, including folks at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who weighed in on a previous deliberative process on the use of lethal force. They're now talking about taking the same scrutiny towards the use of less lethal force like this because everybody that we spoke to, including people who are in the law enforcement community and who are, you know, basically pro-blue line, they have concern for officers on the street. Even they recognize that the situation now with respect to this kind of these kinds of projectiles is inadequate and needs to be changed.

CHANG: Jay Hancock is a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News. Thank you very much for joining us today.

HANCOCK: You are welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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