Tell Congress: Restrict the Use of Dangerous Crowd-Control Weapons | Physicians for Human Rights

Tell Congress: Restrict the Use of Dangerous Crowd-Control Weapons

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A protester stands amongst tear gas shot by law enforcement to disburse a protest
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U.S. Attorney General Barr lied on national television about the kinds of crowd-control measures used on peaceful protesters in Washington, DC. PHR demands that Congress immediately commit to restricting the use of weapons like tear gas and pepper spray. Please stand with us and demand immediate action. 

Your Message
Restrict the Use of Dangerous Crowd-Control Weapons
Dear Member of Congress

I am deeply alarmed by the excessive use of force by law enforcement agents across the United States. Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ensuing widespread popular protests against systemic racism and excessive practices by law enforcement, police have met these protests with further excessive displays and misuse of force in crowd-control operations.

For years, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented and reported on the dangers of “less than lethal” weapons used in crowd control around the world. I therefore join PHR in urging you to take up legislation that addresses training of law enforcement agents in use of force and crowd-control best practices and that better regulates the limited, last-resort circumstances when dangerous crowd-control weapons may be used.

Among the most common forms of “less than lethal” weapons being used against protesters today are chemical irritants – including tear gas and pepper spray – and kinetic impact weapons such as rubber bullets.

Chemical irritants are inherently indiscriminate. Accordingly, the risk of exposing bystanders and people other than the intended targets, including vulnerable people, is high. Moreover, while the public perception may be that chemical irritants cause minimal, transient harm, PHR research has identified troubling levels of morbidity and even instances of death caused by these weapons. Such injuries include: damage to the eyes, including possible corneal burns, lacerations or blindness; injuries to oral and gastrointestinal mucosa, which may result in excessive vomiting or blood vessel ruptures; respiratory damage, which may precipitate respiratory distress resulting in hypoxia, respiratory arrest, and death; or cardiovascular stress – particularly for those with preexisting heart conditions – which, combined with respiratory distress, also increase the danger of heart attacks and death.

Likewise, kinetic impact weapons, such as rubber bullets, are inherently inaccurate when fired from afar and can cause unintended injuries to bystanders and strike vulnerable body parts; at close range, they can be lethal. Therefore, these weapons are not appropriate for use in crowd management and, specifically, should not be used for dispersal purposes.

International human rights law and the United States Constitution protect the right to freedom of assembly. The state has a legal duty to protect those exercising their right to peaceful assembly from any type of violence, including violence from law enforcement agents and counter-protesters. I join PHR in recommending that Congress enact legislation that sets national guidelines for crowd control that reflect international legal principles, according to the following parameters:

• The use of force must be minimized, targeted, proportional, and directed at de-escalating violence.
• Restraint must be shown in all use of force by law enforcement agents, with a view to minimizing injury and loss of life. The use of “less than lethal” incapacitating weapons must be carefully controlled, and they must be employed in a manner that minimizes the risk of endangering persons that are not actively a threat to public safety.

Additionally, in light of the dangers identified by PHR, I urge Congress to restrict the use of chemical irritants and kinetic impact projectiles to only the most extreme instances that meet the tests of minimized, targeted, proportional force, and only as a last resort. I encourage Congress to take up the following recommendations for the very limited circumstances in which such weapons may be used and require law enforcement to:

• Prohibit firing gas canisters or grenades directly into a crowd or toward individuals. Likewise, avoid firing multiple canisters in the same spot or firing repeatedly, as such actions can cause serious injury or even death.
• Use extreme caution during deployment of chemical irritants using canisters or grenades – which are indiscriminate by nature – to stop the effect from spreading to unintended targets and bystanders.
• Consider all contextual factors in all circumstances before making a decision to deploy indiscriminate chemical irritants.
• Prohibit firing grenades or canisters containing chemical irritants into closed places or open spaces where there is no safe egress.
• Significantly limit the use of kinetic impact projectiles in general, particularly in crowd management and specifically for dispersal purposes.
• Restrict limited deployment of kinetic impact projectiles to circumstances where a threat to life or a threat of serious injury exists and where all other means to protect lives are inapplicable.

While addressing dangerous law enforcement practices that also violate human rights in the context of crowd control is an important step that Congress – as well as state and local governments – should take, it is only one element of broader systemic law enforcement practices that disproportionately harm people of color in this country. Enough is enough. Congress must act.


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