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The Los Angeles Police Department’s use of “less-lethal” munitions was already under scrutiny when they permanently blinded a man in his right eye and knocked out another man’s teeth on Sunday night. If it’s not evident by now, these so-called “less-lethal” or “non-lethal” projectiles can cause serious damage. Yet despite public outcry dating back to gruesome injuries inflicted in May and June (and beyond), law enforcement in L.A. County is still using them to control crowds and wound civilians.
On Sunday night, a crowd formed around Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles to celebrate the Lakers’ 17th NBA championship win. Fans flocked to the area despite Mayor Eric Garcetti’s request to celebrate at home due to the pandemic. The festivities involved a lot of cheering, chanting and one guy social distancing inside of a plastic bubble. Then the cops showed up.
Their reason for breaking up the celebration was, ostensibly, that it was rowdy. In a press release, the LAPD said that the “largely peaceful” celebration turned violent when some “unruly” people mixed in with the crowd began to throw bottles and rocks at officers, causing them to declare an unlawful assembly. The LAPD reported damage to more than 30 buildings and one bus and conducted 76 arrests. According to the L.A. Times, 73 of those arrests were on suspicion of failure to disperse.
But many of the victims who were shot on Sunday night said they weren’t participating in any sort of mayhem. Plus, failing to disperse is not an excuse to shoot at civilians.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Manuel Barrientos, a 25-year-old part-time photographer, was hit in the mouth Sunday night by an LAPD projectile. His brother, Jose Meza, told the Times that Barrientos was leaving the area, but turned to take a photograph when it happened.
“When he looked down, he saw a little piece of his lip on the floor, and he was dripping blood from his mouth,” Meza said.
The projectile also knocked out eight of his teeth.
Another person who wished to remain anonymous told the Times that he and his partner were watching the celebration from afar and away from “rowdy people” when he was hit in the face with a foam round that fractured a bone near his eye.
Similarly, 22-year-old William Gonzalez was hit in his right eye with a foam round as he observed the crowd. It ripped his tear duct apart and “exploded” the eyeball. His doctors say he will never see out of that eye again, adding that it will most likely need to be removed.
We reached out to the LAPD for a statement regarding these injuries and received a press release citing three civilian and eight officer injuries, but no further details.
Body camera footage and images from social media depict similarly bloody scenes from the protests that have occurred over the past several months. In August, the LAPD released footage from May 30 showing officers in the Fairfax area shooting a foam round at an unarmed protester named CJ Montano. He was later treated for head injures at a hospital. Also seen in the video recoiling after being hit in the face by a less-lethal round is Trish Hill. She said the projectile broke her nose.
In late September, plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed for a restraining order to prevent the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department from using rubber bullets, tear gas and other “less-lethal” devices. Among the plaintiffs is a 28-year-old man who had to have emergency surgery on his testicles after a round hit him in the groin. Another said he was shot in the head with a tear gas grenade in June while protesting the death of Andres Guardado.
Another lawsuit, filed by Black Lives Matter, the L.A. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and the Los Angeles Community Action Network accuses the LAPD of violating protesters’ rights by responding with violence and packing detainees into buses for hours in the middle of a pandemic.
When the LAPD released the body camera footage from May 30, it also offered a YouTube explainer of the 40 mm launchers that fire the foam projectiles. According to LAPD Capt. Gisselle Espinoza, the rounds are supposed to hurt but are “designed to be non-penetrating by distributing energy over a broad surface area.”
Officers are supposed to target large muscle groups, not the head, when firing. And yet it keeps happening. And after all the pushback against police brutality and the dozens of use of force investigations that launched following those early summer protests, the LAPD still managed to permanently blind a man in one eye just days ago.
Should law enforcement rethink its use of “non-lethal” projectiles if officers keep hitting people in sensitive body parts and firing into crowds? A lot of experts say yes.
Physicians for Human Rights found that 115 people across the U.S. sustained head or neck injuries while protesting between May 26 and July 27, with many in Los Angeles, Austin and Portland. They even listed these injuries on an interactive map, where you can learn about each one individually. They refer to the weapons as kinetic impact projectiles or KIPs.
The group concluded that “severe injury, disability, and death are often consequences of being shot in the head with these weapons,” adding that their use to disperse crowds of peaceful protesters violates the First Amendment protections of free speech and assembly.
In June, the Los Angeles City Council put forth and ultimately approved a motion asking the inspector general, the LAPD and the Department of Civil and Human Rights to look into the use of force during protests. On Aug. 12, the Board of Police Commissioners sent a letter to the City Council saying it had asked the National Police Foundation to conduct a thorough review of its behavior from May 20 through June 7. The letter states that the Board of Police Commissioners expect the results of the investigation to be delivered after six months.