Just as law enforcement authorities find themselves under fire for instances of racist, excessive uses of force, police agencies across the country seem hell-bent on giving critics more and more evidence for their argument that major policing reforms are needed.
The independent, nonpartisan Kaiser Health News Service and USA Today deserve credit for scrutinizing dozens of incidents involving officials’ actions nationwide against people protesting the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. As the news organizations reported (and in passages worth quoting at length):
“In a joint investigation into law enforcement actions at protests across the country after George Floyd’s death in police custody, KHN and USA TODAY found that some officers appear to have violated their department’s own rules when they fired ‘less lethal’ projectiles at protesters who were for the most part peacefully assembled. Critics have assailed those tactics as civil rights and First Amendment violations, and three federal judges have ordered temporary restrictions on their use.
“At least 56 protesters sustained serious head injuries, including a broken jaw, traumatic brain injuries and blindness, based on news reports, interviews with victims and witnesses and a list compiled by Scott Reynhout, a Los Angeles researcher. Photos and videos posted on social media show protesters with large bruises or deep gashes on the throat, hands, arms, legs, chest, rib cage and stomach, all caused by what law enforcement calls ‘kinetic impact projectiles’ and bystanders call ‘rubber bullets.’
“A least 20 people have suffered severe eye injuries, including seven people who lost an eye, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Photographer Linda Tirado, 37, lost an eye after being hit by a foam projectile in Minneapolis. Brandon Saenz, 26, lost an eye and several teeth after being hit with a ‘sponge round’ in Dallas. Leslie Furcron, 59, was placed in a medically induced coma after she was shot between the eyes with a ‘bean bag’ round in La Mesa, Calif. Twenty-seven-year-old Derrick Sanderlin helped defuse a confrontation at a protest in San Jose, Calif., on May 29. While he was trying to protect a young woman from police, he was hit with a projectile that ruptured a testicle and, his doctor said, may leave him infertile.”
The news organizations dive deep into the dangers posed by the projectiles and officials’ use of them — taking aim at body parts (the eyes, head, groin, and neck) that policies purportedly bar officers from targeting. As they reported:
“Floyd’s death sparked the nation’s most widespread street protests in decades, drawing a massive response from police dressed in riot gear. Although many large metropolitan police departments own these projectiles, they had never before been used on a national scale … Witnesses say law enforcement in several major cities used less-lethal projectiles against nonviolent protesters, shot into crowds, aimed at faces and fired at close range — each of which can run counter to policies. Police have said they fired these weapons to protect themselves and property in chaotic, dangerous scenes.”
As for those projectiles, the reporters found this:
“They are designed to travel more slowly than bullets, with blunt tips meant to cause pain but not intended to penetrate the body. They come in many forms, including cylindrical wooden blocks, bullet-shaped plastic missiles tipped with stiff sponge or foam, fabric sacks filled with metal birdshot, and pepper-spray balls, which are about the size of a paintball and contain the active chemical in pepper spray. Some are fired by special launchers with muzzles the diameter of a cardboard toilet-paper roll; others can be fired from shotguns. They can cause devastating injuries. A study published in 2017 in the medical journal BMJ Open found that 3% of people hit by projectiles worldwide died. Fifteen percent of the 1,984 people studied were permanently injured. ‘Given the inherent inaccuracy’ of the projectiles and the risk of serious injury, death and misuse, the authors concluded they ‘do not appear to be an appropriate means of force in crowd-control settings.’”
The New York Times, meantime, examined authorities’ widespread use of risky chemical irritants against groups of protesters, reporting:
“At least 100 law enforcement agencies — many in large cities — used some form of tear gas against civilians protesting police brutality and racism in recent weeks … This brief period has seen the most widespread domestic use of tear gas against demonstrators since the long years of unrest in the late 1960s and early ’70s, according to Stuart Schrader of Johns Hopkins University, who studies race and policing. ‘Thousands and thousands of utterly ordinary people who thought they were going to an ordinary protest event are finding themselves receiving a really aggressive police response,’ he said. ‘That itself is a bit horrifying. The police have actually succeeded in making people more angry.’”
The gases pose serious health risks, the newspaper reported:
“Tear gas has long been used to disperse crowds during protests and riots, both nationally and internationally, despite being banned in warfare by the Chemical Weapons Convention. If used appropriately, it drives people to flee the gas, which irritates their eyes, skin, and lungs without causing serious, long-term injuries in most.
“But in cases where law enforcement misuses the agent, it can cause debilitating injuries. Prolonged exposure or high doses can lead to permanent vision damage, asthma, and other long-term injuries. Research increasingly shows tear gas and other weapons that have been deemed by law enforcement as being nonlethal can seriously injure and sometimes even kill. There’s also evidence that the use of tear gas could worsen the spread of coronavirus. Because tear gas is indiscriminate, it makes it hard for the police to limit the impact to the intended target, and some experts question whether its use was necessary in recent protests.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on the innocent by excessive use of force by authorities. For too many Americans, but especially for people of color and those with less money, the U.S. health care system has become a gantlet of cruelty they must struggle through to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care. It has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, uncertainty, and complexity of therapies and prescription drugs, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.
Meantime, as they try to go about their lives, unacceptable numbers of Americans — especially if they are Black — find themselves in too often unnecessary, sustained, and damaging contact with officials acting in authoritarian ways with excess violence. The Washington Post deserves credit for stepping in where federal officials have not done well to build a database of deaths of individuals in police custody. The newspaper reported that, as of June 19, 1,034 people had been shot and killed by police in the last year. That number has stayed consistent for the five years or so the newspaper has collected information on such cases through various sources.
The journalistic findings include this trenchant point:
“Although half of the people shot and killed [each year] by police are white, black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for less than 13% of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate.”
The Marshall Project on U.S. criminal justice and the data-driven 538 web site have chronicled the many states in which lawmakers have launched efforts to deal with authorities’ excessive, racist use of force, and to shift policing practices. State and federal lawmakers are asking good questions about the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, notably with their receipt of surplus weaponry and equipment from the nation’s armed forces. Civil libertarians should keep up their questioning as to why federal Homeland Security officials deemed it necessary to fly drones, helicopters, and aircraft to surveil Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
We have a lot of work to do to ensure that law enforcement truly serves and protects their crucial constituency — us, and that the good, decent, and honorable authorities also stay safe, well, and can do the public service they signed up for.