The ongoing unrest in Ferguson over 18-year-old Mike Brown’s shooting has illustrated the increasingly blurry line between law enforcement and military combat, as heavily armed police forces in riot gear have repeatedly clashed with unarmed protesters. On Sunday night, that tension was on full display, and police reportedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds well before the town’s midnight curfew.
U.S. police are increasingly relying on those so-called “non lethal weapons” for crowd control, a dynamic that’s inspired a national conversation about whether it’s appropriate to arm cops with weapons that are typically used in combat. Indeed, there’s increasing evidence that non lethal weapons can actually inflict serious pain and, in some rare cases, even kill people. Here’s how the police in Ferguson are potentially putting protesters’ health in danger:
Although tear gas is a chemical agent that’s banned in warfare, it’s perhaps the most common method of crowd control at protests around the world. Tear gas activates pain receptors in the body, causing a sensation of burning in subjects’ eyes, noses, and throats. In response to the pain, victims typically cough and choke, and their bodies produce excessive tears and mucous in an attempt to flush out the chemical. Because there are so many pain receptors in the cornea, it’s usually impossible for them to keep their eyes open, and some people report temporary blindness. People who suffer from asthma, or people who have been sprayed with tear gas in an enclosed space, often struggle to breathe.
Although tear gas is classified as non lethal because it’s generally considered to have only short term consequences, some scientists warn that things can quickly go wrong if it’s deployed incorrectly. There have been several reports of people dying in Egypt and Israel after inhaling too much tear gas.
Opponents of this particular chemical agent point out that there hasn’t been enough conclusive research into its potential long term health effects. Physicians for Human Rights has documented several cases in which people in Bahrain have suffered miscarriages, respiratory failure, and persistent blindness after being exposed to tear gas. The Chilean government suspended the use of tear gas in 2011 over concerns that the chemicals could damage women’s reproductive systems and harm their fetuses.
“These agents are certainly not benign,” Sven-Eric Jordt, a professor of pharmacology at Yale University School of Medicine, told the National Geographic in an interview last year. “There is no way to disconnect the pain that is induced from the physiological inflammatory effects of these agents.”
There have been multiple reports of protesters in Ferguson being hit with rubber bullets, which are intended to deter people by inflicting superficial wounds. Some people are posting photos of their injuries on Twitter. One image that’s gotten a lot of attention over the past week is a photo of a rubber bullet wound sustained by Renita Lamkin, an African Methodist Episcopal church pastor. She was reportedly calmly repeating “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” when she was struck in her side.
These less lethal bullets typically cause abrasions, bruising, and bleeding. In some cases, they can lead to small bone fractures. According to a review of the tactics used by the Isreali police force during riots in 2000 published in the medical journal The Lancet, people often sustain serious injuries from being hit with rubber coated bullets. Researchers found that 152 people were admitted to Israeli hospitals in early October 2000 with rubber bullet wounds; 19 percent of those were considered to “severe wounds,” and three people were permanently blinded. Other studies have found that getting shot in the face with a rubber bullet can lead to serious facial injuries, leading researchers to conclude that they’re “less lethal but extremely harmful weapons.”
It’s possible to die from a rubber bullet, particularly if you’re hit at close range or struck in the face or neck. Between 1970 and 1975, the British military reportedly killed 13 people in Northern Ireland with rubber bullets. Autopsy reports of Palestinian civilian fatalities between 1987 and 1993 concluded that rubber bullets killed at least 20 people. Here in North America, there have been seven known fatalities in the U.S. and Canada from these weapons.
Rubber bullets have long been a controversial aspect of crowd control. Human Rights Watch, which has spoken out against the use of excessive police force in protests in Brazil, Ukraine, and Egypt, has also recently criticized police for using rubber bullets against the crowd in Ferguson.
Several news outlets have confirmed that police in Ferguson have been firing wooden pellets into the crowd. “Those are less lethal wooden baton rounds,” a law enforcement spokesperson told the Guardian in an email.
Wooden baton rounds were designed to bounce at shin height, striking protesters on the leg and inflicting minor injuries. This type of crowd control was popularized in Hong Kong during periods of labor unrest in the 1960s, but was quickly deemed too unsafe for Western European countries, which made the switch to rubber bullets since they don’t carry an increased risk of splintering.
Wooden pellets cause the same type of welts, abrasions, and bleeding that rubber bullets do. Earlier this week, 26-year-old Steve Walsh told the Guardian that he was struck in the neck by a wooden pellet as he was walking to the home of his two-month-old son and got caught up in the protests. It left him drenched in sweat with a bloody wound behind his ear. “I almost fainted,” Walsh, whose photo has been circulating on Twitter, said. “Blood just started coming out. I was just walking through.”
This type of weapon has sparked litigation in the past. After firing wooden pellets on Iraq War protesters in 2003, the Oakland City Counsel paid 24 anti-war demonstrators $145,000 to settle claims that Oakland police officers had violated their civil rights by using excessive force. At least 54 people were injured in that protest from both wooden and rubber bullets. That suit spurred the California Police Department to adopt new regulations prohibiting the use of non lethal weapons for crowd control.
Long Range Acoustic Devices
Long Range Acoustic Devices, or LRADs, are sound cannons that use loud and high-pitched sounds to induce pain. Developed by the LRAD Corporation, this weapon was initially intended to help the U.S. Navy deter pirates — but over the past several years, they’ve increasingly been used by cops to disperse protesters. The LRAD Corporation’s website notes that the Santa Ana Police Department, the Pittsburgh Police Department, the New York Police Department, and the Boston Police Department have all used LRAD technology in an attempt to control crowds. And now, there are several reports that police in Ferguson have repeatedly used LRADs against the residents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), being exposed to sounds at or above 120 decibels can put people at risk for hearing loss. (For reference, a normal conversation is typically around 60 decibels and a lawnmower clocks in at about 90 decibels.) LRADs can blast sounds at well above that threshold, reaching up to 160 decibels.
Anyone within 300 meters of a LRAD’s sound path will experience headaches; people within 100 meters will experience extreme pain. “In Pittsburgh, they directed the LRAD at a crowd coming up the center of a wide street, then sent tear gas canisters down the sides of the street. Tear gas is painful, but everyone ran into the tear gas to get out of the LRAD path,” one protester told Salon after participating in a demonstration against a NATO summit in 2009, the first documented case of cops using the weapon against U.S. civilians.
Some people may even experience permanent hearing damage. Karen Piper, an English professor, sued the city of Pittsburgh for using a LRAD against people during that 2009 protest after she was plagued with long term medical side effects. Piper was hit at close range with the sound waves from the weapon; she became nauseous, mucous discharged from her ear, and she developed a severe headache. Since then, she has continued to suffer from permanent nerve damage, dizziness, pain, and a permanent ringing in her ears.