‘Less-Lethal’ Weapons Bill Fails To Get Committee Blessing Before County Council Vote

Jul 9, 2020

Legislation that would limit police use of “less-lethal,” crowd-control weapons was rejected by an Allegheny County Council committee Wednesday. 

The Health and Human Services committee voted against an amended version of the bill 5-2 before sending it back to the full 15-member council for a final vote. Republicans Tom Baker and Cindy Kirk joined Democrats Tom Duerr, Bob Macey and Paul Zavarella in opposing the measure. Democrats Liv Bennett and Anita Prizio supported it.

Bennett had introduced the bill a month ago along with fellow Democrat Bethany Hallam. The move came days after Pittsburgh police had used less-lethal weapons, including bean-bag rounds and pepper spray, on two separate occasions to disperse protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Such crowd-control tools had begun to draw scrutiny for their potential to infringe on First Amendment rights while also threatening serious injury and, in rare instances, even death.

On Wednesday, however, Zavarella countered that police give “multiple warnings” before deploying less-lethal devices.

“We can’t remove these tools from the toolbox that the police use,” Zavarella continued. “I just believe that the more tools we can give the police to do their job, the less we have to worry about ... deadly force being used and of potentially worse outcomes taking place.”

Bennett and Hallam originally proposed banning all police in the county from using less-lethal munitions to control crowds. But on Wednesday, the committee adopted an amendment, introduced by Duerr, that made the bill applicable only to the Allegheny County Police Department.

Council’s solicitor raised concerns two weeks ago that council did not have the legal authority to regulate the use of weapons by municipal police forces within the county, or by the Sheriff’s Department. Attorney Jack Cambest also said state and federal laws could preempt the proposal.

Law-enforcement officials, meanwhile, said that without less-lethal munitions, they likely would resort to using deadly force more often, or choose not to intervene in dangerous situations at all. Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough noted that SWAT officers have used flashbang grenades to gain control over suspects in dangerous standoffs, including the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

The full County Council could vote on the bill at its next meeting on Tuesday, July 14.