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Activists Want Open Data About How Pittsburgh Police Use 'Less-Lethal' Weapons, Ban On Purchasing More

Protesters run from smoke during a protest May 30, 2020.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
Protesters run from smoke during a protest May 30, 2020.

About two dozen activists stood at the City County building Downtown Wednesday to call for Pittsburgh Police to ban the use of so-called “less lethal” weapons and withdraw its efforts to purchase more. Several of those gathered said they were on the receiving end of tear gas, sponge rounds and smoke grenades during racial justice protests last summer.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police posted a formal invitation to bid on a contract last month; potential vendors would supply the department with the less lethal weapons. The solicitation has closed but a contract has not yet been awarded, according to the Department of Public Safety.

Calls to ban the use of these weapons to control crowds altogether have grown both locally and nationally since last summer's protests.

“These are the same things that are being rejected by other cities. Why not ours?” said Myra Taylor, a Pittsburgh nurse, at the downtown press conference Tuesday. She said preventable injuries that happen during protests put strain on the region’s hospital system.

Pittsburgh policy allows officers to use less-lethal weapons "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."

“Even though they’re called less lethal, they do kill,” Taylor said. “There are lifelong consequences to these devices.”

Brandi Fisher, CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said purchasing these munitions is a display of hostility by the police towards peaceful protesters. Multiple protesters suffered a wide array of injuries as a result of the munitions last summer.

“It just shows us that this is the result [police] want to have in these situations,” Fisher said.

According to Cara Cruz, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, less lethal weapons are shared among multiple public safety bureaus — such as animal control — and used in several different scenarios.

“Throughout the year, SWAT, for example, often uses it or has it available during emergency call outs which can involve barricade and hostage situations, including some domestic violence calls. The equipment is also used during search warrant and arrest warrant service,” said Cruz.

Activists want the bureau to publish data illustrating how often the weapons are used in different scenarios.

“We want their statement to be substantiated. The most we’ve seen it used is on [protesters],” Fisher said. “The data would speak volumes to our position and their position and which one is actually accurate.”

Fisher and others also want Pittsburgh city councilors to prevent the purchase from being made. But Corey O’Connor, who chairs City Council’s public safety committee, said the contract wouldn’t need council approval.

“Council will not vote on this. The funding [approval] for these types of purchases were done last year. This is the calendar year to spend those funds,” he said. “Each individual purchase does not come back to council.”

O’Connor also said the Department of Public Safety has improved transparency around such purchases. Previously, he said, equipment was purchased through a state contract, and the specifics were not made public.

“Now that the general public is getting ... this information, it could move forward an open and transparent conversation,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said he would support more open data about how police use these munitions. “I think public safety is obviously open to sharing data and other council members are interested in bills and legislation [around] that,” he said.

The Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the idea of sharing that data; requests for an interview were also declined.

A bill that would ban the use of less-lethal weapons by the Allegheny County Police Department failed to pass County Council last year.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.