Weapons | Misuse of Crowd-control Weapons and Excessive Force

“Less-lethal” crowd-control weapons when misused can cause serious injury, disability, and death.

Law enforcement throughout the world is increasingly responding to popular protests with crowd-control weapons (CCWs), also known as “less-lethal” weapons. The proliferation of CCWs without adequate regulation, training, monitoring, and/or accountability has led to the widespread and routine use or misuse of these weapons, resulting in injury, disability, and death.

After the South Korean government used more than 350,000 canisters of tear gas against demonstrators in 1987, PHR organized an investigation that concluded Seoul’s indiscriminate use of massive amounts of tear gas was clearly excessive use of force, effectively changing the perception of tear gas as a harmless crowd-control tactic. Since then, PHR has conducted numerous investigations into governments’ excessive and indiscriminate use CCWs and other forms of excessive force, including in Bahrain, Georgia, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Kashmir, Panama, Thailand,  Türkiye, Sudan – as well as, and in the United States in nation-wide protests for racial justice after the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd. PHR has documented the serious injuries inflicted on people participating in the protests and medics providing assistance to protestors.

In 2023, PHR and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations published Lethal in Disguise 2, an update to the original groundbreaking 2016 report, documenting the misuse and abuse of CCWs, the detrimental health effects that these weapons can have, and the impact of their use on freedom of assembly and expression. With our partners, PHR advocates for international standards and guidelines for CCWs in order to prevent injury, disability, and death.

A recent PHR investigation documented serious physical injuries and individual mental health harms from law enforcement’s use of excessive force in protests in Portland, Oregon. PHR also published an investigation into police violence and attacks on street medics at a racial justice protest in the Bronx, NY, as well as an expert statement on individual and community effects from that violence.

Health Impact of Crowd-Control Weapons

Crowd-control weapons can cause serious injury, disability, and even death. These fact sheets describe the health impact of acoustic weapons, directed energy devices, rubber bullets (and other kinetic impact projectiles), stun grenades (and other disorientation devices), tear gas (and other chemical irritants), and water cannons. They also outline when and how these weapons can legally be used.

Weapons Fact Sheets:

Guidance for Protestors

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