The City Council Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on August 10 regarding an ordinance that restricts the use of chemical crowd control agents and kinetic impact projectiles.
Sponsored by Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Andrea Campbell, the purpose of the hearing was to learn more about these items and how they affect people, as well as learn about the process used by the Boston Police Department (BPD) and have a discussion with them about restricting their use.
Arroyo said that chemical crowd control agents are “strictly prohibited in warfare. Tear gas would actually be illegal if used on an enemy combatant but perfectly legal to use on our constituencies.”
Arroyo made it clear early on in the hearing that “this isn’t an outright ban.” Though several councilors stated their wish for the items to be completely banned, they acknowledged that restricting them is a good first step. The ordinance also includes a two minute warning that must be given to the crowd before these devices are deployed, to give people a chance to leave the area.
“We know that these things are dangerous,” Arroyo said, citing a case in 2004 when a woman was killed in Boston by a rubber bullet after the Red Sox won the World Series.
“People exercising their lawful first amendment rights shouldn’t be met with destructive or deadly weapons,” Councilor Campbell said. “These are often called non-lethal. Prolonged use can cause blindness, or in severe cases, death.”
Councilor Liz Braedon said she grew up in Northern Ireland “where they invented the rubber bullet. It’s very personal to me. I understand the need for effective ways to try and manage street protests that are turning violent and getting out of control,” she said,” however “I do feel these rubber bullets are very dangerous. I would like to see clear protocols for when they should be used.”
Dr. Rohini Haar, an adjunct professor at University of California Berkeley and a part time ER physician, has been studying the effects of chemical crowd control agents and kinetic impact projectiles on people.
She explained some findings of a “long, systematic review we did between 1990 and 2015.” She explained that there are various types of rubber bullets; some with a plastic base and hard foam on top that are much larger than a regular bullet, and others like foam batons, bean bag rounds, and scatter shot bullets, which include “multiple balls inside a single canister.”
She said that there is a “range of severe injuries caused by kinetic impact projectiles,” including to the skin, bones, muscles, limbs, eyes, lungs, head, neck, and belly.
She said the terms “non-lethal” or “less than lethal” should be retired, as “these are very much lethal.” There have been instances where the bullets have fractured people’s skulls, causing brain damage to the point where a person can no longer be functional.
Tear gas can cause chemical burns and allergic reactions, and the can can cause explosive burns, as well as severe injuries to the eye. Haar said that over 50 deaths from tear gas were included as part of the research.
“We conclude that tear gas is indiscriminate and unnecessary,” she said.
Boston Police Superintendent William Ridge said he has been a police officer since 1983, and said he has been to “hundreds and hundreds” of demonstrations, at some of which force was used.
He said the only time they have ever used tear gas was at the protest on May 31 of this year.
“It was not a peaceful demonstration; police officers were being attacked,” he said. “We need tools to be able to disperse and disrupt people who are attacking us.”
He said that while the job of the police “is always to protect everybody’s first amendment right to peacefully protest, our officers were attacked with CS gas and pepper spray as well as a number of other projectiles that were coming down towards us.”
He said that permission to use things like rubber bullets and tear gas “is given strictly at the highest levels,” and he doesn’t want to restrict the use of those options.
“It’s not like we’re out there indiscriminately using this stuff,” he said.
Deputy Superintendent Kevin McGoldrick agreed, saying he does not want to “risk letting a riot run un abated or not controlled.”
He added that “no one is diminishing the fact that there is risk when you use impact weapons like that but it’s a balance of risk. The night of May 31 would have been quite calamitous if we didn’t take action. The vast majority of protestors there that evening were peaceful protestors.”
He also said he was concerned about the two minute warning, as the ordinance does not allow for an officer to react during a sudden attack and there are police concerns about having to wait two minutes while being actively attacked, they said.
“The proposed ordinance does not go far enough,” said Rahsaan Hall of the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts, adding that he would like to see the councilors “enforce an outright ban.”
Superintendent Ridge said that these items are only used during riots, and never during peaceful demonstrations. “In the City of Boston we are not using those unless we have a riot situation,” he said.
He added that BPD has sponge rounds in its inventory, but they can only be deployed by specially trained officers.
“Once it escalates into a riot and we have to use those devices that we have, then I don’t see the need to start putting restrictions on it,” he said.
Ridge said that “in all circumstances, we can’t say that we’re able to give a warning. We can’t say ‘we’ll let you attack us for two minutes.’”
He said that currently, “if somebody’s under direct attack, they can use OC spray.” In order to use CS gas, the “police commissioner or his designee” would have to clear it first.
McGoldrick said that there would be “unhappiness at the police response if we don’t control violence for two minutes while we wait. It presents challenges that people may find unacceptable.”
Councilor Arroyo responded by saying that ‘the reality is if somebody threw a stick of dynamite, [there would be] no ability to leave because the response is immediate. That is not acceptable either.”
He reiterated that this is not a ban of these devices; “we’re not taking the tools away from BPD. The question is about how it’s implemented and used.”
A few members of the community shared their experiences of being pepper sprayed by BPD officers and described what they saw from the BPD at protests in May, which one said also included the use of batons “to move attendees because one of them dropped their bike.”
Campbell said the Council “talked for a long period of time before putting this ordinance forward. We wanted to have a robust conversation,” and added that she is ”mindful of the fact that an absolute ban probably wouldn’t go anywhere.”
She said that she was “still confused” about the practices and protocols for the use of these devices in the city, and she believes the ordinance would codify them and make it clear to the public what the rules around them are.
“I do not think this should be a long, drawn out conversation in terms of passing this ordinance,” she said. “If the two minutes is too long, what is reasonable?” She said it would be difficult to make changes to the ordinance if the police department does not provide specific information about what would work for them.
“It’s about striking a balance,” Councilor Michael Flaherty said. “The [two minute] warning is in the best interest of public safety.” He said that if a warning is issued, it should be for a “short period of time” to give people a chance to leave.
Councilor and Chair of the Committee on Government Operations Lydia Edwards agreed with the need for a balance, and said that issuing a warning before deploying these devices” I think is the most reasonable and low hanging fruit.”
She said she “hopes the police will agree to some kind of warning,” and added that it might even help the police weed out who is not at protests to be peaceful, as those who are would most likely leave after the warning was issued. She said that “we have, in the majority of cases, good police work,” but she still believes “codified protocols should be put in place.”
The discussion on this matter is not over. “This conversation will continue in a working session,” Edwards said.