Monday, July 20, 2020

Police Have Been Their Own Worst Public Relations Enemy Playing War With Protesters


propublica |  Experts said how police respond to demonstrations is, in part, dictated by the availability of nonlethal weapons and on how officers are trained to use them.

In 2016, Haar surveyed 25 years of research on crowd-control weapons used around the world, including three commonly used in the United States: projectiles such as rubber bullets or beanbag rounds; chemical irritants such as tear gas; and disorientation devices known as flashbangs. Her report found that when fired, tear gas canisters can cause vision loss or other traumatic injuries.

“These are all weapons that should be used as a last resort when open dialogue and communication fail and the violence is so out of hand that normal policing methods and arresting people have been tried and don’t work,” Haar said.

The size of protests also influences how police respond, Straub said. Small protests can likely be handled by specialized units that are regularly tasked with managing crowds. Larger protests may require many more officers, some of them drawn from parts of police departments that have less experience and training in crowd control and de-escalation, and thus may be more likely to resort to weapons.

In the Washington video, by not rushing the crowd when a protester threw a bottle, Straub said, the officers remained calm and acted with “restraint.” It would be unfair, Straub said, to require the police to analyze what protesters are throwing at them before reacting, given how quickly such an encounter could escalate. “One person throws a water bottle, five people throw water bottles, and then somebody throws a brick,” he said.

Experts said how quickly officers choose to deploy weapons in the field depends on their training, which can vary widely between departments.

No entity sets training standards for police use of force, experts said. However, departments, equipment manufacturers and state officials have mandated that officers undergo training before they are allowed to use nonlethal weapons. Depending on the training, officers may be taught how to shoot weapons so they “skip off the pavement” in order to decrease their velocity and risk of serious injury.

In firing their guns, officers are taught to aim at the person’s torso because it reduces the risk that a bystander will be struck. But with nonlethal weapons, officers are often instructed to avoid the torso, head or groin, said Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, a trade group for SWAT teams that also conducts training for police departments. Precise aim in a crowd is extremely difficult, he said.

“We explain to them that in a crowd control situation, it’s a dynamic environment,” Eells said. “It’s not the same as a paper target.”

 Reaction to police escalation caught on video has been swift.

As demonstrations continued and the media drew attention to the police tactics, departments in at least 40 cities have announced changes. In Philadelphia, officials announced a moratorium on tear gas to control crowds, New York moved to make officers’ disciplinary records public, San Francisco announced plans to stop sending police officers to calls that don’t involve criminal activity and Atlanta now requires officers to intervene if they see another officer using unreasonable force.

Straub said that the scrutiny of officers’ actions in protests, and the condemnation of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, were strong signals “that that kind of behavior isn’t going to be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, academic conversations around defunding or abolishing the police have been around for decades, but now, some politicians are opening up to such notions. That’s in part, Bell said, because of the “intellectual organizing” Black Lives Matter activists did early on to help frame the injustices they were protesting.

“Now, the real question about whether this time will be ‘different’ also has to do with what’s adopted,” Bell said.

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