Report Details Dangers of “Non-Lethal” Weapons Used Against Protesters

Report Details Dangers of “Non-Lethal” Weapons Used Against Protesters

A protester flees from tear gas fired a protesters in Hong Kong in 2014. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung via Flickr

A report by Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations detailed the health risks associated with crowd control weapons (CCWs) used by police around the world and issued recommendations for their proper use.

The report, titled “Lethal in Disguise,” discusses the use of kinetic projectiles, chemical irritants, water cannons, disorientation devices, acoustic weapons and directed energy weapons with information obtained from medical reports and news reports on injuries sustained by these weapons at protests globally.

The report found that testing and training for CCW devices is lacking in the United States and abroad.

“The weapons are often used in an indiscriminate manner, without exhausting all other peaceful means first,” the report says.

Despite the lack of oversight or regulation, the report found demand and supply of CCW devices to be growing at a fast pace. Production of CCWs now occurs in more than 50 countries and this increased supply may be a contributing factor to the rise of their use, the report said.

The report found many instances of misuse of CCWs with little to no disciplinary actions taking place.

“There were 204 crowd-control-related complaints lodged against law enforcement between 2002 and 2011,” the report says about misuse of CCWs by South African police. “85 cases were investigated and only one police officer was convicted.”

Kinetic Impact Projectiles

The report found that KIPs, also known as rubber bullets or similar devices, had little to no published research on their safety, design or safety testing. This is partially due to manufactures limiting information, which in turn limits the information needed by doctors and nurses to assess injuries caused by KIPs.

The report suggested if these CCWs are used they should be fired at an appropriate distance and at a person’s legs instead of the body. An impact from a KIP at a close distance to the main portion of the body can result in internal bleeding, broken bones and in some instances even death, the report found.

In one instance in Egypt in 2015, a protester by the name of Shaimaa’ El-Sabbagh, 31, was killed after an officer with Egyptian riot police fired a “bird shot” KIP from a 12-guage shot gun at close range resulting in internal bleeding and El-Sabbagh’s death.

Of the 1,925 cases studied related to KIPs, 53 people were killed and 294 suffered permanent disabilities, the majority of which being permanent blindness.

Chemical Irritants

Chemical irritants such as tear gas have been outlawed by the United Nations in warfare but regulation regarding their domestic use is lacking, the report found.

The most common ingredient in tear gas and other chemical irritants such as pepper spray is capsicum, the chemical that makes peppers hot. However, the report found that the canisters and devices used to disperse the chemical irritants also contained harmful chemicals such as alcohol, halogenated hydrocarbons and Freon.

The main worry of the report about chemical agents is the indiscriminate nature of the devices used, especially when coming from a fired grenade or canister.

Exposure to the chemicals involved can be lethal, however, the lack of information on the concentrations of the chemicals used cannot allow for an appropriate estimate of how long a person needs to be exposed for amounts to be lethal.

Of the 5,131 people who suffered injuries whose cases were examined in the report, only two died, which was due to being struck by a canister directly after it was fired from a launcher.

About 98 percent of people injured sustained minor injuries but the long-term physiological impacts of being exposed to the chemical irritants has not been widely studied, the report found.

“The prevailing premise for the widespread use of these chemical agents is that they cause minimal and transient irritation to the skin and eyes, but are generally safe for the use on diverse populations. However, the review of these studies found that, by design or by inappropriate use, chemical irritants can cause significant injuries, permanent disabilities and death,” the report stated.

Water Cannons

Injuries by water cannons were commonly not caused directly by the cannon itself but by the individual falling or being pushed after being stuck by the water cannon, according to the report.

The injuries varied and included hemorrhages, damage to the eyes and in some cases where they were used at a close distance the injuries were strong enough to put one person into a coma.

In Israel, riot police utilize a device they call the “Skunk” which is a water cannon that sprays large areas with a foul smelling odor. The smell could take up to four days to properly remove and the health effects of long-term exposure are not widely known.

This practice of adding foul-smelling chemicals to water cannons is fairly new and is becoming more widespread, the report stated.

Disorientation Devices

Disorientation devices, commonly known as stun grenades, create a small flash and or bang meant to stun anyone near the device.

A report by ProPublica in 2015 found 50 cases of death and serious injury in the United States alone, one resulted in an 18-month-old baby sustaining burns so severe it exposed the child’s ribs after a stun grenade was thrown into the infants crib.

The report stated stun grenades are inappropriate and inadequate and have no place in crowd control measures.

Acoustic Weapons and Directed Energy Weapons

Little information was available for the report on instances of the use of either acoustic or directed energy weapons.

The report felt the use of these weapons on civilian populations attempting to protest to be un-ethical until medical professionals could adequately access the possible health risks.

In conclusion, the report detailed multiple recommendations, most of which dealt with oversight and testing of CCWs before implementation.

The report also recommended law enforcement agencies to use CCWs as a last resort.

“Even in the context of protests where there are people who either engage in or incite others to engage in acts of violence which require police intervention, the explicit goal of intervention should be to de-escalate the situation,” the report said.