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Less-Lethal Weapons: Humane Crowd Control Or Tools Of Police Brutality?

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh police used chemical munitions to disperse protesters who had gathered downtown on Saturday, May 30. Two agencies are investigating how police responded.

Recent protests of police brutality and systemic oppression have prompted calls to end the use of “less-lethal weapons” to control crowds. 

On Tuesday, in fact, Allegheny County Council took up a bill that would ban the munitions altogether. But while critics of the weaponry view it as a form of police brutality itself, and point to instances where the tools have caused severe injuries and even death, proponents insist it is humane and necessary.

The president of the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police Union, Bob Swartzwelder, said it would be a mistake to prohibit the use of less-lethal weapons, which include alternatives to conventional bullets as well as chemicals like pepper spray.

Without that equipment, “the police would be forced to [do] what you saw in the '68 riots in Chicago, along with canines biting individuals, swinging of batons,” said Swartzwelder, who is a use-of-force expert. “And it doesn’t look like a disciplined response. … It looks just like street fighting with people in uniforms and people not in uniforms. It doesn’t look like a professional application of force that is controlled. It turns into complete chaos.”

Pittsburgh policy allows officers to use less-lethal munitions "to perform their duties in a more efficient and humane manner when dealing with physical resistance or the threat of physical resistance." The policy asserts that the weapons do so “with a minimal potential for death or serious injury."

Swartzwelder said officers are trained to use crowd-control tactics “to deal with a large-scale civil disturbance.” They start by verbally ordering protesters to disperse, he said. If the crowd does not heed those commands, officers switch to increasingly forceful methods.

“Maybe you use just smoke: ‘Hey, we’re going to do this.’ That’s like a warning,” Swartzwelder said. “Then it escalates, slowly but consistently, and people will leave.”

Pittsburgh police have used less-lethal weapons at two protests since the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in late May under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. And there has been sharp disagreement about just how gradual and deliberate deployment of the munitions has been at the protests. Some demonstrators have said police have used the weapons without justification, and public-safety officials acknowledge that only a small number of people engaged in vandalism or other criminal activity.

Vic Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said police “will justify [using less-lethal weapons] because there’s a few knuckleheads … who get their jollies breaking a couple windows." Large-scale crowd-control tactics in those situations are wrongheaded, he said.

"Those folks should be treated as criminals, not as an excuse to suppress thousands of people from peaceful demonstrations.”

In Pittsburgh, the police bureau’s arsenal includes smoke canisters, pepper spray, sponge projectiles, and bean-bag rounds, according to bureau spokesperson Chris Togneri.

Bean-bag rounds are small, cloth sacks filled with lead pellets or silica sand. They’re fired from a shotgun and can cause intense bruising and even broken bones. Sponge projectiles consist of a dense plastic base and a tip made of foam rubber or sponge-like material. 

Togneri indicated that, despite anecdotes to the contrary, the city does not equip officers with rubber bullets. Swartzwelder confirmed that rubber bullets are not in use at the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and described them as "very old technology."

City policy allows trained officers to use pepper spray. Though the policy says nothing about tear gas, there have been reports that tear gas has been used. Pepper spray, also called OS gas, and tear gas, known as CS gas, cause similar symptoms and are often confused for one another. Togneri said reports of tear gas are among the questions now being examined by the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations and the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board.

But city police were not the only ones on the scene of protests, or the only ones armed with less-lethal weapons. Pennsylvania State Police also have been deployed, and troopers carry pepper spray, Tasers, and batons into crowd-control situations. Some are trained to use less-lethal ammunition such as bean-bag rounds, smoke, and tear gas, said Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson Ryan Tarkowski. He said that was not an “exhaustive” list of the types of less-lethal weapons his department could employ.

While state police have had a presence at at least some marches in Pittsburgh, Tarkowski said he could not specify which ones “because several situations were fluid and rapidly evolving.”


Police say they try to minimize the harm that can be caused by using those weapons. Swartzelder noted that officers are trained to target "major muscle mass [areas] of the body," rather than more sensitive spots such as the throat or head.


But less-lethal weapons have already inflicted critical injuries, including brain damage, on protesters in other cities. Other risks include being hit by a canister when police release chemical agents, trampled if other protesters panic and then stampede when the munitions are used, or having a vulnerable body part struck by a sponge or bean-bag round.

And the risks from pepper spray go beyond painful burning sensations on the skin and in the eyes, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms. The substance can also cause uncontrollable coughing and sneezing -- reactions that have led some to worry that using the chemical could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, which is transmitted between people via respiratory droplets.

“You call them ‘less lethal,’" said the ACLU'S Walczak. "But they’re incredibly violent and cause harm, especially the chemical ones used in these pandemic times."