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Allegheny County Council To Consider Ban on Rubber Bullets, Tear Gas, Flashbangs

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
A woman clutches her bleeding shin after being struck by a tear gas canister fired by police during a protest in downtown Pittsburgh Saturday, May 30.

Law enforcement’s use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and other crowd-control tools at recent protests over police violence has stirred public outcry. On Tuesday, Allegheny County Council is expected to consider a ban on the “less lethal weapons.”

Democrat Bethany Hallam plans to introduce the legislation with fellow Democrat Liv Bennett, days after a federal judge temporarily upheld a similar ban in Denver, Colo. The county council proposal comes more than a week after protests in downtown Pittsburgh and East Liberty turned violent. Some demonstrators looted and vandalized local businesses, destroyed public property, and threw rocks and bottles at the police, while officers clad in riot gear and armed with billy clubs, used tear gas and bean-bag rounds to disperse the crowd. Bean-bag rounds are small, cloth bags filled with lead shotgun pellets. They reportedly have sent protesters elsewhere in the country to the hospital with critical injuries, including brain damage.

Hallam noted that most demonstrators have not caused destruction. Therefore, she said, they should not be subjected to police force.

“The police should do their jobs and arrest the folks who are breaking the law. And instead they’re putting all of the peaceful protesters in harm’s way,” Hallam said.

In addition to rubber bullets, bean-bag rounds, and tear gas, the bill would prohibit the use of flashbang grenades and plastic bullets, among other chemical, explosive, and "kinetic" munitions.

The weapons are meant to control crowds by causing discomfort and possibly pain, but not death. According to Hallam and Bennett’s bill, however, the tools can be fatal in some circumstances, such as when they target people with preexisting medical conditions, or if an officer misuses them.

Hallam said those risks are too great, even when protests turn into riots.

“The people who are rioting are not harming each other,” Hallam said. “At the absolute most, they’re harming property, and property can be replaced.”

But Patrick Knepp, vice president of Pittsburgh’s Fraternal Order of Police union, said that local demonstrators have injured 11 city officers by “hurling projectiles” at them during protests that have sprung up in the aftermath of Minneapolis black resident George Floyd's death at the hands of police. The injured Pittsburgh officers, Knepp wrote in a statement, have suffered “multiple concussions, broken bones, cuts, and abrasions.”

The bill that county council plans to take up Tuesday would require those who use "less lethal" instruments such as rubber bullets or tear gas to pay a fine of up to $300. Violators could also be charged for a summary offense with a jail sentence of up to 30 days.

County council has received more than 200 public comments ahead of Tuesday's meeting, according to a council spokesperson. The spokesperson said most of the comments favor the proposed ban. While a clerk will not read all the comments when council convenes, the statements will be included in meeting minutes several weeks later.

Hallam said it’s possible council will vote on the bill Tuesday rather than send it to committee to “die.” A two-thirds vote is required to fast-track the measure.

“That is what I’m thinking might happen,” Hallam said. “I’m not saying that it’s because people are so supportive of it. But some people are just so against it that they want to get a vote on it now, too.”

Hallam added that, if the bill doesn’t come up for a vote Tuesday, it will likely end up in council’s public safety committee, which is chaired by bill co-sponsor Bennett.