In August 2014, the world watched as police in riot gear cracked down on nonviolent protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Tear gas, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets rained down on demonstrators. Officers equipped with military tanks and firearms looked ready for war, pointing their guns in the direction of unarmed men and women.
Ever since the Ferguson Uprising reinvigorated protests against police violence, the national conversation surrounding officer brutality has largely focused on the lethal force that took Michael Brown’s life and countless others. Time and time again, police shoot to kill or use physical force that claims the lives of hundreds of people every year. In 2015 alone, approximately 1,000 people were shot to death by cops.
But a new report from the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) highlights a less obvious danger that hasn’t received as much attention: non-lethal crowd-control weapons (CCWs) — like the ones used by police in Ferguson — that cause serious injury, disability, and death around the world.
The network — comprised of the ACLU and comparable organizations in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East — identified six categories of nonlethal weapons that cause irreparable damage: chemical irritants, water cannons, kinetic impact projectiles (rubber and plastic bullets, baton rounds), acoustic weapons (sound cannons, sonic bullets), disorientation devices (flash-bang and stun grenades), and directed energy weapons (electromagnetic waves).
INCLO and PHR discovered that 1,925 people from 26 studies were injured by kinetic impact projectiles (KIPS), or different types of bullets. The majority — 70 percent — of those injuries were severe and 3 percent of those people died. Generally, strikes to the head, neck, torso, and abdomen can result in chronic disability. Bullets can also cause internal damage of major organs, such as the lungs and heart. Similarly, shrapnel from flash bang devices and explosives can puncture skin, fracture bones, and amputate parts of the body.
Compared to KIPS, the majority of injuries related to chemical weapons are minor. Of 5,131 people studied, only two died from chemical irritants. The weapons generally cause temporary blindness and burning sensations. But tear gas also has crippling impacts: traumatic brain injuries, loss of limb functionality, and permanent respiratory problems.
Acoustic weapons, such as noise bazookas, can lead to permanent hearing loss.
Much less is known about water cannons and directed energy weapons. Anecdotal evidence shows that intense water pressure can fracture bones, leave bruises, and damage eyes. The cannons also cause indirect injuries because people fall to the ground from the water’s impact. Directed energy weapons, a new technology that fires electromagnetic waves, can burn multiple layers of skin and, ultimately, damage blood vessels, glands, and nerves.
“By pointing out the substantial health risks associated with several of the so-called ‘nonlethal’ weapons, this report should pave the way for much-needed reforms in law enforcement’s dependence on these weapons to control protests and other mass gatherings,” Director Jamil Dakwar of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program said in an official statement. “The potential for injury and death exists whenever police use these weapons, whether in an encounter with one individual or a crowd. The report’s vital recommendations should apply to these weapons no matter how many people are the targets.”
While the devices have been used across the globe, there are no internationally-recognized standards for which CCWs should and should not be used. When world leaders come together to address weapons, CCWs aren’t on the table for discussion. At the same time, the report notes that the CCW industry has been expanding, with manufacturers in 50 countries today.