Protesters call on government officials to defund the police.
Protesters call on government officials to defund the police. Photo by Afonso Salcedo.

LAPD’s Use of ‘Less-Lethal’ Rounds Comes Under Scrutiny

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Body camera footage of an unarmed protester being struck by a less-lethal round contradicts the LAPD’s claim that officers used projectiles to “target individuals who were throwing objects at the officers.”

As the Los Angeles Police Department investigates allegations that officers used excessive force during protests in late May and early June, they’ve released body camera footage centered around a man who is shot in the head with a less-lethal round at a protest on May 30. On that same video, a woman with her hands up is seen suddenly doubling over. She has identified herself as Trish Hill and says the round that hit her broke her nose.

In the video, LAPD Capt. Gisselle Espinoza from the Media Relations Division identifies the male victim as CJ Montano. She notes that the circumstances surrounding the shooting, including which officer hit Montano, are still under investigation.

The LAPD says the video is from Saturday, May 30 at about 7:09 p.m. and takes place at Beverly Boulevard and Grove Drive. On that day, a protest at Pan Pacific Park moved to the area near The Grove, where police and protesters clashed after a police vehicle was allegedly set on fire.

In the body camera footage, police are seen moving toward protesters while shouting “less lethal” and “leave the area.” Montano is seen standing in the middle of the street with his hands up, backing away from officers as they advance. When the round hits him, he falls to the ground immediately. Another protester helps him to his feet, and they both run away. Espinoza said Montano was later treated for head injuries at a hospital.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Montano spent four days in the hospital. The incident is being investigated as an “unintentional head strike.” The designation of “unintentional” is based on interviews with two officers that the department determined fired their weapons, according to a source who spoke with the Times. One of Montano’s lawyers told the Times they believe he was “specifically targeted.”

If you look at the video, just after the six-minute mark, you can see in the enlarged, slowed-down footage that there’s a woman to the left of the frame. She’s also backing away with her hands up. Just before the footage cuts off, you can see her double over.

That woman has identified herself as Trish Hill.

I first talked to Hill in early June. She said she’d been at the protest and had been hit in the face with a less-lethal round that broke her nose. I’d been there, too, to cover the events of the day. She asked me to tell her if I had or found any footage of her getting hit. She said it happened at Beverly Boulevard and N. Stanley Avenue at about 7 p.m. She told me she had been wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and a scarf. When I sent her this video today and asked if the woman was her, her response was, “I’m shaking all over.”

The Pan Pacific Park protest wasn’t Hill’s first protest that weekend. She also attended a protest the previous day, Friday, May 29, during which she said she was hit with a less-lethal round in the butt. It didn’t feel much worse to her than being struck with a paintball, so she wasn’t worried about attending another protest.

On Saturday, at around 7 p.m. (an hour before curfew), she joined the group on Beverly Boulevard. It wasn’t long before officers began firing non-lethal rounds at protesters. Because of her experience that Friday, Hill said she felt “so much bolder to put my body between protesters and the police.”

“At the time, there was a meme going around about white women putting themselves in between police and protesters because we are the historically protected and precious to law enforcement and less likely to be shot,” she said.

But this time, a less-lethal round hit Hill in the face, which is a lot different than being hit in the butt. Hill sought treatment at Cedars, where it took a plastic surgeon 15 minutes to reset her nose.

“I consider myself to be on the tough side vis-a-vis pain tolerance, but I scream-cried like I’ve never scream-cried before,” she said.

In the video, Espinoza describes less-lethal weapons used by the LAPD as beanbag shotguns that fire cloth socks filled with small, metal pellets and 40 mm less-lethal launchers that fire foam projectiles.

“The round strikes the person’s body and is intended to cause pain,” she said of the foam projectiles, “and while there may be bruising, it is designed to be non-penetrating by distributing energy over a broad surface area.”

They can still cause serious injury, though. Journalist Linda Tirado was shot and blinded in one eye while photographing a protest in Minneapolis on May 30. Actor Kendrick Sampson said he was shot seven times at protests in L.A. and that a friend of his had to get stitches.

Espinoza also said LAPD officers used projectiles to “target individuals who were throwing objects at the officers, such as rocks, glass bottles and frozen water bottles.”

Neither Montano nor Hill are seen throwing anything at police in the video. And in the days that followed the protests, videos surfaced on social media that depicted officers swinging batons at unarmed protesters and shooting less-lethal rounds into groups of people.

The LAPD soon announced it was investigating dozens of allegations of use of force during the protests. And, according to L.A. Daily News, the Los Angeles Police Commission has asked the National Police Foundation to review the way the LAPD handled protests from May 29 to June 7. They’ll be asked to look at the LAPD’s tactics, deployment, command and control and — this is key here — “use of munitions.”

Hill says seeing the video is surreal and brought emotions of “grief, anger, sadness, excitement [and] justice.” At first, she worried that seeing it would be re-traumatizing, but is now glad she watched it.

“I have had this internal battle of shame, which I guess is common of assault victims, wondering if I really did do something wrong and if I deserved what happened to me,” she said. “I’m so non-threatening in this situation no one even notices the damage done. The highlight is on the person who was hit before me. My whole face was rearranged in that frame and my whole life was forever changed, and it is almost an afterthought.”

Hill’s nose is healing well, though she said she still has some nerve issues with her jaw — mostly pain and occasionally, a “pins and needles” feeling. Through GoFundMe, she’s been able to raise a portion of her medical costs.

“Even considering the other privileges I possess, I have had a great support network and recovery resources that other protesters might not be afforded,” she said. “So even if I was just there to draw the fire from them, I consider it worthwhile and would do it again.”

Other people injured by law enforcement during the protests are suing the city, including one woman who says a foam round flew through her open car window as she drove near the protest, hit her in the face and caused a fractured cheekbone and brain injury.

According to the LAPD, the incident depicted in the video was reported as a complaint, but their efforts to interview Montano have been unsuccessful. Montano told the Times that he told them to talk to his lawyers. LAPD’s Force Investigation Division will continue to investigate, then the Critical Incident Review Division will forward the findings to LAPD Chief Michael Moore, who will make a recommendation to the civilian Board of Police Commissioners. The board will then evaluate the evidence to determine if officers acted within policy.

Los Angeleno