How Dangerous are Crowd-control Weapons? Answers from an Expert

In recent weeks, the use of crowd-control weapons (CCWs) on protestors has raised tensions and questions on the ethics of non-lethal weapons. We speak with Dr. Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, the medical director at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan, about crowd-control weapons and the consequences of their use.

In the last month alone, the U.S. has seen nearly 3,000 protests for police accountability and racial justice. Some have prompted law enforcement officials to utilize crowd-control weapons (CCWs) against protestors, leading to multiple cases of injuries and calling into question the ethics of their use.

So how dangerous are CCWs? Dr. Michele Heisler, the medical director of Physicians for Human Rights, has led a number of investigations on injuries sustained by indiscriminate use of CCWs and their health impact.

“They’re definitely still very dangerous weapons. And as we’ve seen in the recent demonstrations in the U.S., there have been scores of very serious injuries,” she said.

There have been nearly 3,000 protests against racial injustice across the U.S. since May 25, 2020. Image courtesy of Count Love.

The Department of Defense defines CCWs, or non-lethal weapons, as those that are “primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or materiel immediately, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property in the target area or environment. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have reversible effects on personnel and materiel.”

CCWs include a broad range of different tools, including kinetic impact projectiles like rubber bullets, chemical irritants like tear gas canisters or pepper spray and disorientation devices like flash-bangs (stun grenades). 

“I think the most dangerous are these rubber bullets” she said, “in theory and they’re certainly less lethal than a gun, than a bullet, but they’re bigger and bulkier. They actually can have the same force as a bullet.”

These weapons can cause an assortment of injuries including damage to hearing, vision or external and internal parts of the body. They are designed to prevent lethal or serious injury, but  some have still led to injuries like severe traumatic bruising, lacerations and blindness either because of design flaws or misuse.

For example, rubber bullets are often made to be larger than normal bullets and out of softer material, but this difference in design creates its own dangers.

“The reason they’re used is that they’re kind of bulkier so they’re less likely to cause penetrative injuries. But also that same slowness and bulkiness can actually make them much more indiscriminate,” she said.

Even with proper training, using CCWs like rubber bullets can have unintended consequences.

“So you have cases of them bouncing off the ground hitting people in the face,” she said, “Police are instructed to direct them below the knees, but again, they’re just not very accurate, so you can end up hitting people in the face and the eyes. If they do hit people in the eyes, they often lead to complete blindness because they rupture the eyeball.”

Rubber bullets are just one type of CCW, and even those have variations in type, design and even the material with which they are made (some have even used wood). 

In Philadelphia, the use of tear gas led to unintended exposure of bystanders and residences within the vicinity. A student In Indiana also lost an eye from being hit by a thrown tear gas canister. Research also suggests there may be long-term detrimental effects on lung health that can be caused by breathing in the gas.

“You will see cases where almost the tear gas canisters themselves [are] being used as weapons. And tear gas also. If tear gas is used in an enclosed space where people are not able to exit, that can also lead to severe respiratory illness and distress and rashes and long-term effects,” she said.

Other CCWs, like flash-bangs, beanbag rounds, batons and riot shields have also been known to cause blunt trauma, severe burns and other serious or even fatal injuries.

CCWs are not new, and have been used throughout history as a means to control large groups of people and prevent violence (although some would argue they are actually often the source of violence).

“The idea of these weapons is that they will de-escalate, but instead they often sow more chaos, mayhem [and] confusion. So, I think we often see that they lead to the opposite of what in theory they’re supposed to do,” she said.

Across the U.S., many areas are considering banning crowd-control weapons. On June 15, Seattle’s city council voted unanimously to ban the use of CCWs. 

“I think in the U.S., this represented an escalation far beyond what we’ve seen in the past,” she said, “We were seeing serious injuries in cities throughout the country.”

Read more about CCWs from Physicians for Human Rights.


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