Fractured Skulls, Lost Eyes: Police Often Break Own Rules Using ‘Rubber Bullets’

Warning: Graphic photos and video under.

Megan Matthews thought she was dying.

“I thought my head was blown off,” mentioned Matthews, 22, who was hit within the eye with a sponge-tipped projectile fired by regulation enforcement at a May 29 protest in Denver. “Everything was dark. I couldn’t see.”

Matthews, a soft-spoken artwork main who lives along with her mom, had gone to the demonstration in opposition to police brutality carrying bandages, water bottles and milk so she might present first support to protesters.

“I couldn’t really grasp how bad my injury was,” mentioned Matthews, who sustained accidents together with a damaged nostril, fractured facial bones and a number of lacerations on her face. “So much blood was pouring out. I was wearing a mask, and the whole mask was filling up with blood. I was trying to breathe through it. I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t stop breathing.’”

Megan Matthews was hit within the eye with a sponge-tipped projectile at a May 29 protest in Denver. She sustained accidents together with a damaged nostril, fractured facial bones and a number of lacerations on her face.

Three weeks later, Matthew is struggling along with her imaginative and prescient and her physician says she could by no means utterly heal. Others fared far worse.

In a joint investigation into regulation enforcement actions at protests throughout the nation after George Floyd’s demise in police custody, KHN and USA TODAY discovered that some officers seem to have violated their division’s personal guidelines after they fired “less lethal” projectiles at protesters who had been for probably the most half peacefully assembled.

Critics have assailed these techniques as civil rights and First Amendment violations, and three federal judges have ordered non permanent restrictions on their use.

At least 56 protesters sustained critical head injuries, together with a broken jaw, traumatic brain injuries and blindness, primarily based on information studies, interviews with victims and witnesses and an inventory compiled by Scott Reynhout, a Los Angeles researcher.

Photos and movies posted on social media present protesters with large bruises or deep gashes on the throat, hands, arms, legs, chest, rib cage and stomach, all attributable to what regulation enforcement calls “kinetic impact projectiles” and bystanders name “rubber bullets.”

“Less lethal” projectiles fired by police are significantly injuring individuals


At least 20 individuals have suffered extreme eye accidents, together with seven individuals who misplaced a watch, in response to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Photographer Linda Tirado, 37, misplaced a watch after being hit by a foam projectile in Minneapolis. Brandon Saenz, 26, misplaced a watch and a number of other enamel after being hit with a “sponge round” in Dallas. Leslie Furcron, 59, was positioned in a medically induced coma after she was shot between the eyes with a “bean bag” spherical in La Mesa, California.

Derrick Sanderlin along with his spouse, Cayla Sanderlin. Derrick, who had skilled San Jose police recruits on avoiding racial bias, was hit by a projectile that ruptured a testicle.

Twenty-seven-year-old Derrick Sanderlin helped defuse a confrontation at a protest in San Jose, California, on May 29. While he was making an attempt to protect a young woman from police, he was hit with a projectile that ruptured a testicle and, his physician mentioned, could go away him infertile.

With phrases like “foam,” “sponge” and “bean bag,” the projectiles could sound innocent. They’re not.

“On day considered one of coaching, they let you know, ‘Don’t shoot wherever close to the head or neck,’” mentioned Charlie Mesloh, an authorized teacher on the usage of police projectiles and a professor at Northern Michigan University. “That’s considered deadly force.”

Floyd’s demise sparked the nation’s most widespread street protests in decades, drawing a large response from police wearing riot gear. Although many giant metropolitan police departments personal these projectiles, they’d by no means earlier than been used on a nationwide scale, Mesloh mentioned.

Witnesses say regulation enforcement in a number of main cities used less-lethal projectiles in opposition to nonviolent protesters, shot into crowds, aimed toward faces and fired at shut vary — every of which might run counter to insurance policies.

Police have mentioned they fired these weapons to protect themselves and property in chaotic, harmful scenes.

These projectiles, meant to incapacitate violent aggressors with out killing them,  have advanced from the rubber bullets developed in the 1970s by the British military to quell uprisings in Northern Ireland. They are designed to journey extra slowly than bullets, with blunt suggestions meant to cause pain however not meant to penetrate the physique.

They are available many types, together with cylindrical wooden blocks, bullet-shaped plastic missiles tipped with stiff sponge or foam, fabric sacks filled with metal birdshot, and pepper-spray balls, that are in regards to the dimension of a paintball and include the energetic chemical in pepper spray.

Some are fired by particular launchers with muzzles the diameter of a cardboard toilet-paper roll; others could be fired from shotguns.

They may cause devastating accidents. A research revealed in 2017 in the medical journal BMJ Open discovered that three% of individuals hit by projectiles worldwide died. Fifteen p.c of the 1,984 individuals studied had been completely injured.

“Given the inherent inaccuracy” of the projectiles and the chance of significant damage, demise and misuse, the authors concluded they “do not appear to be an appropriate means of force in crowd-control settings.”

Yet producers proceed to market them on their web sites for that function. Defense Technology says its “eXact iMpact” sponge projectile is “used for crowd control, patrol and tactical applications.” PepperBall says the makes use of for its projectiles embrace “anti-riot” and “crowd control.”

Security Devices International describes its “blunt impact projectiles” like weapons of battle, saying they’re “designed for military, peacekeeping, homeland security, law enforcement, correctional services and private sector security.” It provides, “they are ideal for crowd control.”

The firms didn’t reply to requests for remark.

There are not any nationwide requirements for police use of less-lethal projectiles and no complete knowledge on their use, mentioned Brian Higgins, an adjunct professor on the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Brandon Saenz misplaced a watch and a number of other enamel after being hit with a “sponge round” in Dallas. (Courtesy of Brandon Saenz’s lawyer, Daryl Washington)

So the nation’s greater than 18,000 regulation enforcement companies set up their very own guidelines for when they need to be used, who’s allowed to fireside them and methods to maintain their officers accountable.

Many police departments don’t require officers to document their use of projectiles, Higgins mentioned, making it troublesome to know the way typically they’re used.

Denver’s coverage says officers ought to use projectiles solely on a “combative or bodily resistive individual whose conduct rises at the least to the level of active aggression,” to forestall others from being harmed, or to “incapacitate a suicidal person who cannot be safely controlled with other force.”

Denver additionally forbids officers from concentrating on the “head, eyes, throat, neck, breasts of a female, genitalia or spinal column” of a suspect “unless deadly force is warranted.”

Matthews mentioned she was standing 5 ft from different peaceable protesters on the Denver demonstration and nowhere close to anybody rowdy. She suspects her taking pictures was no accident.

“Either they targeted her face or they fired indiscriminately at the crowd,” mentioned Ross Ziev, Matthews’ lawyer. “Either way, that poses a tremendous safety hazard.”

A federal lawsuit accuses Denver police of “targeting protesters, press, and medics” and aiming projectiles “at the heads and groins of individuals, in a clear tactic to inflict maximum damage, pain and distress.”

The Denver Police Department “takes complaints of inappropriate use of force seriously and has initiated Internal Affairs investigations into officers’ actions during demonstrations that may be violations of policy,” a division spokesman mentioned.

A federal decide in Denver issued a brief order limiting the usage of projectiles and tear gasoline. Police could use them solely with the approval of a supervisor — and solely to answer “specific acts of violence or destruction of property that the command officer has personally witnessed.”

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson discovered a “strong likelihood” that Denver police violated protesters’ constitutional rights “in the form of physical injury and the suppression of speech.”

The Denver Police Department “has failed in its duty to police its own,” Jackson wrote.

Judges in Seattle and Dallas have issued comparable injunctions, and cities resembling San Jose, Atlanta and Austin have moved to curb their use.

‘We’ve Opened The Floodgates’

As of 2013, 37% of police departments within the U.S. approved the usage of “soft projectiles,” in response to the newest survey launched by the U.S. Department of Justice. That included the most important police departments within the nation and greater than half of these serving 10,000 or extra residents.

Law enforcement used the projectiles extensively in the course of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked by the demise of black teenager Michael Brown.

But in day-to-day policing within the United States, kinetic impact projectiles are rarely used, in response to a research revealed in 2018. Fewer than 1% of police use-of-force incidents concerned such weapons, researchers discovered.

Something modified when protests erupted after George Floyd’s demise, mentioned Higgins, a former police chief of Bergen County, New Jersey. “It’s almost like we’ve opened the floodgates,” Higgins mentioned.

In common, instructors train officers to focus on solely people who find themselves “extremely dangerous,” mentioned Higgins, who teaches lessons on methods to use these munitions.

Projectiles must be “your last resort before you go to lethal force,” Higgins mentioned. “That’s how dangerous they are.”

And officers must intention shotguns or launchers fastidiously. “You should never fire indiscriminately into a crowd,” Higgins mentioned. “You should always pick your target.”

Projectiles could be fired immediately at a goal, whereas “skip rounds” are fired on the floor within the hope of hitting the goal as they ricochet upward. That technique of taking pictures is notoriously inaccurate, Mesloh mentioned.

Mesloh mentioned he has spoken out in regards to the issues with police projectiles for years, to little impact.

There are not any manufacturing requirements or high quality management measures for less-lethal projectiles, Mesloh mentioned.

In discipline assessments, he has discovered that bean bag rounds can journey far sooner than marketed. He centered on rounds that had been alleged to fly out of a shotgun at 250 to 300 ft per second, 2½ to three instances sooner than a major league fastball. Several traveled 600 ft per second. One bean bag clocked in at 900 ft per second, about the identical pace as a .45-caliber bullet, he mentioned.

Faster projectiles usually tend to kill than slower ones, they usually fly straighter. So an officer who expects the projectile will dip and hit a suspect’s leg might find yourself hitting him on the torso or head, Mesloh mentioned.

Police may make harmful errors in the event that they shoot projectiles whereas carrying gasoline masks. “The visibility with gas masks is zero,” Mesloh mentioned. “I wouldn’t want to shoot anything while wearing one.”

Leslie Furcron was positioned in a medically induced coma after being shot between the eyes with a “bean bag” spherical just like the one pictured in La Mesa, California.

Instructors usually get eight hours of coaching with less-lethal projectiles earlier than they’re allowed to show others. Their college students — common law enforcement officials — obtain 4 hours of instruction, together with simply 5 – 6 observe pictures. Bean bag rounds used with shotguns price $6 every, which limits what number of can be utilized for coaching, Mesloh mentioned.

Police and their advocates emphasize that officers coping with crowds should make high-stakes selections in chaotic conditions with out time for reflection. Often they worry for his or her bodily security, mentioned Nick Rogers, a detective and the president of the Denver police union.

“Unfortunately, the narrative of the protests has kind of been hijacked,” he mentioned. “We probably had 30 to 40 police suffering injuries from bricks and rocks. And that’s not being reported.”

Denver police didn’t reply to a request to verify that.

In San Jose, police Capt. Jason Dwyer mentioned firing projectiles is safer than making an attempt to manage a crowd utilizing nightsticks. Dwyer, who was struck by a rock, mentioned at a press conference that police had been justified utilizing projectiles and tear gasoline in opposition to the gang, who turned his city right into a “war zone.”

“I’ve been a cop for 21 years, spent about half that time in special operations,” Dwyer mentioned. “But I can tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A South Carolina regulation enforcement chief defended the response in opposition to protesters in Columbia on May 31, a conflict that included the firing of projectiles.

“There was no doubt what their intent was, and that was to destroy property, police cars, police buildings, whatever,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott mentioned throughout a news conference. “So we had to stop them. And we did stop them.”

But Patrick Norris, 28, mentioned he was protesting peacefully when he was shot within the again. He and a bunch of 150 to 200 protesters had been met by about 50 officers from the Columbia Police Department, Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the South Carolina Department of Corrections, in response to a federal lawsuit Norris filed in opposition to the sheriff, the sheriff’s division, town of Columbia and its police division and unnamed officers with the companies and the state Department of Corrections. Court summonses have been issued to the defendants, who haven’t but filed responses.

Officers carried protecting shields and had been clad in physique armor and riot helmets, mentioned Norris, a truck driver and veteran of marriage equality rallies and homosexual pleasure parades.

For about two minutes, the protesters chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” Norris mentioned. Then it appeared that somebody ordered the officers to maneuver ahead. Almost immediately, the scene escalated right into a battle. “They met us with immediate and intense force for no reason,” Norris mentioned. “It was pure chaos, with a large group of armed people unloading on unarmed protesters.”

Local media reported that the protesters had thrown objects on the regulation enforcement officers and tried to sneak into Columbia Police Department headquarters. Norris scoffed at that.

He mentioned he noticed a brilliant flash, adopted by a loud explosion that left shrapnel accidents on considered one of his legs. “Multiple loud pops were heard,” believed to have been “the first of the rubber bullets fired into the crowd by unknown law enforcement officers,” the lawsuit alleged.

“Officers then began shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd of protestors,” the lawsuit mentioned. Norris, who had turned to run, “was struck numerous times in the back” by projectiles that left purple welts seen in pictures included with the lawsuit.

The Columbia Police Department policy on the use of force states that less-lethal weapons meant to be fired immediately at a goal can’t be used indiscriminately in opposition to a crowd, even when it’s violent, and “shall not be used for crowd management, crowd control or crowd dispersal during demonstrations or crowd events.”

The use of pressure insurance policies of the opposite regulation enforcement companies couldn’t instantly be decided. Norris mentioned he doesn’t know who fired at him.

A police officer goals a projectile launcher at protesters who gathered in a name for justice for George Floyd following his demise, outdoors the third Police Precinct on May 27 in Minneapolis.

Shot Without Warning

Soren Stevenson, 25, mentioned he was unarmed when he was shot by regulation enforcement May 31 in Minneapolis.

Protesters had been peaceful however unnerved by police in riot gear, Stevenson mentioned. He moved to the entrance of the gang, about 30 ft from police, to guard protesters behind him.

Suddenly, officers launched two explosive gadgets at demonstrators. Tear gasoline crammed the air.

“The police knew it was a peaceful protest,” Stevenson mentioned. “I did not hear any instructions or commands from police. It went from protest to shooting, just like that.”

Stevenson mentioned he was making an attempt to understand the explosions when one thing slammed into his face, knocking the lenses from his glasses and spinning him round.

“I was very confused. I reached up and touched my face, and it was just soft — that whole left side,” he mentioned. “It broke a lot of bones in my face, and my nostril was moved from the place it belongs to beneath my proper eye.”

Stevenson doubled over, however stayed on his ft. He mentioned he didn’t discover blood or ache till volunteers cleansed the wound at a medic station.

Stevenson mentioned there have been fractures to his cranium, cheekbone, nostril and jaw. He additionally suffered a concussion.

Doctors instantly carried out reconstructive surgical procedure. On June 10, surgeons took out Stevenson’s eye. They inserted a prosthetic that’s anticipated to ultimately settle with surrounding tissue, and he’ll get a glass lens sooner or later. But he’ll by no means once more have regular imaginative and prescient.

In three many years as an ophthalmologist, “I’ve seen just about everything bad that can happen to an eye,” mentioned Dr. George Williams, who has not been concerned in Stevenson’s care. “I can’t imagine a more effective way to destroy an eyeball than these so-called kinetic impact technologies.”

“Frankly, you’re better off being stabbed in the eye with something sharp that creates a clean, plain wound,” mentioned Williams, scientific spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “This creates irregular wounds where the tissue is just blown out. There is oftentimes nothing left to fix.”

His group and Physicians for Human Rights have called for a ban on less-lethal projectiles, together with sponge-tipped bullets, pepper-spray balls and bean bag rounds.

These projectiles “don’t seem to be very effective at crowd control,” Williams mentioned. “All they seem to do is hurt people.”

Frozen With Fear

Nadia Rohr, 24, froze when Detroit police aimed what regarded like “a bright-orange Nerf gun” immediately at her.

She and her girlfriend had been on the entrance of a bunch of marchers after they turned a nook and got here face-to-face with a wall of police in full riot gear, banging their batons on their shields.

“I locked eyes with a police officer,” mentioned Rohr, who mentioned she was peaceable and unarmed on the May 31 protest. “I was in a direct line of fire.”

Rohr mentioned her girlfriend tried to tug her away, however the projectile nonetheless hit her at the back of the top.

According to Rohr’s medical information, the projectile fractured her skull, precipitated bleeding beneath the outer lining of her brain and ripped a deep gash across her scalp that took 9 stitches to shut.

The Detroit Police Department didn’t reply to requests to evaluate its coverage. Guidelines from 2014 authorize Detroit officers to make use of less-lethal pressure solely to guard somebody from bodily hurt, cease harmful or prison conduct or management somebody resisting arrest.

C.J. Montano, 24, has a bruise on his forehead within the form of a circle — seen proof of the projectile that precipitated bleeding inside his mind.

“They shot me directly in the face,” mentioned Montano, a former Marine who was hospitalized within the intensive care unit after attending a May 30 protest in Los Angeles. “It was definitely intentional.”

Montano described a chaotic scene. He and a bunch of nonviolent protesters knelt on the bottom, yelling and chanting, about 5 ft from a line of officers armed with projectile launchers. Nearby, different protesters had been throwing water bottles at police — largely Los Angeles officers, although some sheriff’s deputies had been there too, Montano mentioned.

Montano mentioned he instructed police he would ask the protesters to cease throwing water bottles on the police if the officers didn’t shoot him. He did so, however they shot him anyway with small projectiles, he mentioned.

C.J. Montano, one week after attending a Los Angeles protest the place the police shot a projectile at his head.

The police introduced they’d transfer ahead, and he warned the gang that they must again up.

As the gang moved again amid tear gasoline, he and one other man had been left in a no man’s land, 50 ft from police and one other 50 ft away from the gang, Montano mentioned.

Officers shot once more.

“I got hit in the hip and the stomach at the same time with larger rounds,” Montano mentioned. “They shot the other gentleman. Although my hands were up, they shot me in the rib cage. I fell on the ground and moved behind a sign to catch my breath. … Their shots were getting higher and higher every time I stood up.”

Five minutes later, Montano mentioned, he stood up along with his palms within the air. He mentioned that’s when he felt a robust pressure hit his brow.

“It was just like a really, really hard thud,” Montano mentioned. “I lost all vision in my left eye, all hearing in my left ear.”

The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating 56 allegations of misconduct by officers in the course of the protests that decried police brutality — half of which concerned alleged use of pressure.

The drawback with police response in lots of cities was that leaders assumed crowds can be hostile, mentioned Chris Stone, a prison justice skilled and professor on the University of Oxford. Stone sat on a panel that reviewed the demise of a girl in Boston who was shot with a pepper ball within the early 2000s.

Uniform requirements for utilizing less-lethal projectiles would go a great distance in “strengthening professionalism, strengthening proportionalism and a reasonable response to the protests,” he mentioned.

Officers Violated Rules Against Shooting Nonviolent People

Montano’s description of the taking pictures seems to violate the Los Angeles Police Department’s policy, which explicitly prohibits police from utilizing pepper-spray balls, sponge and foam projectiles and different less-lethal pressure in opposition to individuals who passively resist or disobey them.

According to the Los Angeles coverage, police ought to hearth projectiles solely “if an officer reasonably believes that a suspect or subject is violently resisting arrest or poses an immediate threat of violence or physical harm.”

Demonstrators in Minneapolis, San Jose, Denver and Dallas described being shot with less-lethal projectiles though these departments don’t permit them for use in opposition to nonviolent individuals. In some circumstances, resembling in Denver and Minneapolis, regulation enforcement from different companies had been referred to as in to assist and it’s unclear who fired.

The Los Angeles Police Department mentioned it’s investigating Montano’s taking pictures, which occurred “amidst a fluid protest that at instances turned harmful for each officers and demonstrators.

“In some circumstances they devolved into chaos with rocks, bottles and different projectiles being launched at law enforcement officials, who’ve sustained accidents that vary from cuts and bruises to a fractured cranium.”

In San Jose, lawyer Sarah Marinho, who’s representing Sanderlin, mentioned that police violated their rules after they shot him, that he was armed solely with a small cardboard signal. At the time he was shot, Sanderlin was begging police to stop firing at unarmed people, together with girls, at shut vary.

“The facts are not in dispute,” mentioned Marinho, noting TV news team recorded the scene. “He was a safe distance away. He was not invading the police officers’ space.”

A San Jose police duty manual states that specifically skilled officers could hearth projectiles in opposition to individuals when suspects are “armed with a weapon likely to cause serious bodily injury or death” or in “situations where its use is likely to prevent any person from being seriously injured.”

In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Sanderlin mentioned he stepped between protesters and the police to ask them to cease firing at peaceable demonstrators, together with a girl who had been hit within the chest. Police instructed him to maneuver, he mentioned.

“I shook my head, held my sign over my chest, and thought, ‘I really hope this guy doesn’t shoot me,’” mentioned Sanderlin, who volunteers with a bunch that trains San Jose police recruits on methods to keep away from racial bias. “He fired off a rubber bullet, and I realized he wasn’t aiming for my chest. I was hit directly in the groin.”

San Jose police have mentioned they’re investigating the taking pictures; they didn’t return telephone requires this story.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo tweeted, “What happened to Derrick Sanderlin was wrong,” and he pledged to push for a ban on less-lethal projectiles.

Stephen James, an assistant analysis professor at Washington State University, mentioned he was disheartened to see numerous movies displaying “officers appearing to indiscriminately use pepper balls as if they were paint-balling on a Sunday afternoon.”

Police departments have extra bother imposing self-discipline with weapons throughout protests or riots as a result of officers nearly by no means practice for these circumstances, could also be fatigued and sometimes are fearful, he mentioned.

Though these projectiles ought to by no means be used to disperse a crowd, he mentioned, they do have an vital function within the regulation enforcement arsenal. If police are closely outnumbered in riot or protest conditions, less-lethal firearms can be utilized as a “credible threat” to keep up security and order.

“I would never advocate for taking them away,” James mentioned. “If you take away less-lethal weapons, then deadly force is the fallback.”

Learning From The Past

For residents and police in Baltimore, Floyd’s killing recalled one of many metropolis’s most painful moments.

Five years earlier, Baltimore erupted in violence after a person named Freddie Gray died in police custody. A Justice Department investigation concluded Baltimore police had routinely violated residents’ constitutional rights, discriminated in opposition to blacks and used extreme pressure.

Baltimore introduced in new management. Community teams started working with police. Policies modified.

And after video confirmed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, a curious thing happened in Baltimore: Demonstrations had been peaceable. There are not any accounts of police firing less-lethal weapons.

Erricka Bridgeford, founding father of the Baltimore Ceasefire 365 anti-violence group, mentioned officers marched and knelt with protesters, prompting cheers from the gang. “They allowed people space to yell and vent their pain,” she mentioned.

Baltimore now has strict guidelines governing the usage of kinetic impression projectiles. In the police division’s use-of-force policies, the No. 1 precept is the “sanctity of human life.” Whenever a less-lethal weapon is fired within the line of responsibility, it should be reported and investigated inside 24 hours.

Bridgeford mentioned she was heartbroken when she noticed police in different cities taking pictures demonstrators with rubber bullets and pepper-spray balls. She didn’t name them “less lethal,” saying these phrases make police be at liberty to open hearth.

Those weapons are used to instill worry, she mentioned, “like siccing dogs on people or pulling out water hoses.”

The weapons aren’t “a way to de-escalate. It’s a way to harm people,” Bridgeford mentioned. “Treating a crowd of people like animals? ‘Oh, my God, they’re shooting into the crowd!’ How is that a good strategy?”

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