DHS MUST Stop Using “Less-Lethal” Crowd-Control Weapons on Protestors and Medics | Physicians for Human Rights

DHS MUST Stop Using “Less-Lethal” Crowd-Control Weapons on Protestors and Medics

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 This past summer, during protests in Portland, Oregon, local police officers and federal law enforcement agents attacked the very people they are sworn to protect. PHR was on the ground in Portland, and in our just-released report, we collected evidence of targeted and deliberate use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other crowd-control weapons on volunteer medics working to treat protestors and protestors themselves. This is the first time in PHR’s 34-year history that we have documented human rights abuses of this type and magnitude here, in the United States. 

Send your message to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf today demanding that the DHS Inspector General open an inquiry into the conduct of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel during their operations in Portland and revise department training, policies, and practices on crowd-control weapons to comply with international human rights and policing standards.

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DHS must stop using crowd-control weapons on protestors and medics.
Dear Acting Secretary Wolf,

This week, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) published a report detailing the results of its investigation of instances of excessive use of force, improper use of “less-lethal” crowd-control weapons, and attacks on protest medics during protests in Portland, Oregon in June and July 2020. I write to express my deep concern at these human rights abuses perpetrated by law enforcement personnel, including personnel from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) units under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I urge you to direct the DHS Inspector General to open an inquiry into the conduct of ICE and CBP personnel and their use of force during their operations in Portland. I also call for you to revise department training, policies, and practices regarding crowd-control operations during protests to comply with international human rights and policing standards, which are consistent with U.S. constitutional standards.

In protest over the March 25, 2020 in-custody killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota and systemic human rights abuses by police, large-scale protests erupted in cities and towns across the United States. In Portland, Oregon, these protests centered around adjoining parks at Lownsdale and Chapman Squares. In July, federal troops, including ICE and CBP agents, were deployed to the city against the wishing of local officials.

The PHR investigation team’s findings provide evidence for a consistent pattern of disproportionate and excessive use of force by the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and federal agents against both protestors and medics over the course of June and July 2020. Medics further reported treating an increasing number of serious injuries among protestors from kinetic impact projectiles following the arrival of federal agents on July 1. Volunteer medics experienced and witnessed indiscriminate attacks by both PPB and federal officers. In some cases, medics reported that these attacks appeared to be specifically targeting medics, including with tear gas and projectiles. A number of medics sustained serious injuries due to use of force by PPB and federal agents while providing medical assistance to injured protestors.

The DHS national policy on use of force does not contain any detailed guidance related to lawful use of “less-lethal” weapons. However, the 2020 UN Human Rights Guidance on Less Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement provides more detail on how weapons may or may not be used in order to respect the long accepted principles of necessity and proportionality and the U.S. government’s obligation to prevent cruel and inhuman treatment. Potentially unlawful use of these weapons is unlikely to comply with the U.S. constitutional standard of reasonableness, that is, that the use of force is “objectively reasonable” in light of the specific circumstances.

Among the cases that PHR documented, there were many incidents where potentially unlawful use of “less-lethal” weapons occurred in Portland, including: use of batons on individuals not engaged in violent behavior; use of chemical irritants without sufficient toxicological information available; irritant projectiles fired at individuals, including at the head and face; and kinetic projectiles, including tear gas canisters, fired at the head and face. The use of crowd-control weapons against those only passively resisting dispersal was also reported to cause mental pain and suffering to demonstrators, resulting in potential psychological trauma. Such use represents possible unlawful use of these weapons and may constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

The UN Guidance states that when the government is deploying crowd-control weapons in a protest setting, the government is obligated to ensure that protestors have timely access to emergency medical services, including by actively protecting medical personnel, whether they are acting officially or as volunteers. The DHS use of force policy, which states that medical care should take place “as soon as practicable following a use of force and the end of any perceived public safety threat,” is not in compliance with these international standards and unacceptably increases the health risks for protestors. According to the cases documented by PHR, the government did not actively protect volunteer medics, even those who were clearly marked and offering particular aid to individuals who had been incapacitated by serious injuries.

Given the findings of the PHR investigation in Portland, I join PHR in calling on you and the Department of Homeland Security to take up the following recommendations:

1. Rigorously evaluate all use of force policies and practices for negative impact on health, including thorough consultations with independent medical experts;

2. Provide training for any federal agent involved in crowd control on best practices in de-escalation, mediation, and other crowd-control measures, as well as human rights standards for facilitating protests, and lawful use of force and of crowd-control weapons;

3. Ensure the independence and timeliness of internal investigations into allegations of human rights violations by DHS employees; and

4. Provide the Department of Justice with data about all instances of use of force by DHS employees, including deployment of crowd-control weapons.

Sincerely,

[First Name] [Last Name]