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U.S. Law Enforcement Shot At Least 115 People in the Head with Crowd-Control Weapons During the First Two Months of George Floyd Protests: Physicians for Human Rights

PHR’s new visual investigation “Shot in the Head” highlights the head and neck injuries caused by kinetic impact projectiles fired at protestors in cities across the United States

At least 115 people suffered head injuries when law enforcement officers shot them with  kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs) during the first two months of the U.S. protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, according to a new analysis published by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today.

Shot in the Head,”a visual investigation and analysis, provides a snapshot of the severe medical consequences of law enforcement’s use of crowd-control weapons during racial justice protests across the United States from May 26 until July 27, 2020. The 115 people shot in the head with KIPs – including rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, sponge rounds, tear gas canisters, and other “less-lethal” projectiles fired from a gun or launcher – likely represent only a fraction of the total number of injuries caused by these dangerous and often indiscriminate weapons.

“Shot in the Head” is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the scale and scope of head and neck injuries inflicted by KIPs during the protests which erupted in response to police killings of Black people in the United States in the two months following Floyd’s killing. PHR researchers used open-source investigation methods to collect publicly available data on head injuries caused by KIPs, gleaned from traditional media and social media testimonies as well as legal documents and medical reports.

PHR’s analysis finds that crowd-control projectiles are being used in cities across the country in ways that violate local, federal, and international guidelines. Shooting civilians in the head with KIPs violates widely accepted use of force principles, which forbid targeting of the head and neck and emphasize proportional response to actual threats faced by law enforcement. Furthermore, past research by PHR has shown that severe injury, disability, and death are often consequences of being shot in the head with these weapons. Such excessive and indiscriminate police responses to protests have a chilling effect on the exercise of the fundamental First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

In light of “Shot in the Head” and related evidence, PHR calls for a ban on the use of KIPs in crowd-control situations, due both to the life-threatening injuries they can cause and their potential to violate freedom of expression and assembly.

“Protests calling for justice and accountability for police violence have often been met with more police violence. From Los Angeles, CA to Little Rock, AR, demonstrators and bystanders suffered fractured skulls, broken jaws, traumatic brain injuries and permanent vision loss from these inherently indiscriminate weapons,” said Dr. Rohini Haar, MD, MPH, medical advisor at PHR and adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, who led the “Shot in the Head” review. “The sheer scale and scope of the head injuries caused by kinetic impact projectiles across the country suggests that U.S. law enforcement has a systemic problem when it comes to abusing crowd-control weapons during protests. Even the laws on less-lethal weapons that do exist are not being followed.”

While head injuries from KIPs occurred across the United States, three cities – Los Angeles, CA; Austin, TX; and Portland, OR – stand out as places where significant numbers of civilians were shot in the head with KIPs. “Shot in the Head” highlights the range both of the kinds of KIPs deployed and the ways in which they were misused in the United States during the summer 2020 protests. In Los Angeles, KIPs were misused as tools to disperse peaceful demonstrators who were attempting to leave a protest zone. The incidents in Austin demonstrate how the use of KIPs not appropriate for crowd control has life-altering consequences. In Portland, the maze of overlapping local, state, and national law enforcement departments and jurisdictions hampered accountability for acts that clearly violated proper KIP use.

PHR’s open-source review suggests that so-called “less-lethal” crowd-control weapons escalate tensions, often violate constitutional rights, and can result in significant injuries, disabilities, and even death. Injuries shown in “Shot in the Head,” coupled with PHR’s in-depth documentation and research on the use and impact of these weapons, make clear that kinetic impact projectiles should not play any role in crowd control.

“The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 were likely the largest movement in U.S. history, as tens of millions of Americans peacefully protested and exercised their First Amendment rights. At the same time, U.S. law enforcement entities deployed massive numbers of so-called less-lethal weapons against civilians, with devastating effects,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights and a professor of internal medicine and of public health at the University of Michigan. “Due to their profound harms to the human body and to human rights, kinetic impact projectiles should not be used for crowd control.”

“The 115 head injuries highlighted in ‘Shot in the Head’ are likely an undercount, as we relied on people who chose to publicly report their wounds,” said Scott A. Reynhout, PhD, who conducted the analysis. “‘Shot in the Head’ shows just how little is known about the tolls of kinetic impact projectiles, as U.S. law enforcement agencies are not required to report on the use or impacts of these weapons. There is almost no governmental oversight or regulation of KIPs, despite the fact that they are increasingly used against protestors across the United States. Police accountability efforts should include requirements to publicly disclose the types, amounts, and impacts of the crowd-control weapons used against U.S. civilians.”

For more than three decades, PHR medical experts have researched the consequences of crowd-control weapons around the world. In 2016, PHR and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations published a report (“Lethal In Disguise”)documenting the misuse and abuse of crowd-control weapons, the detrimental health effects that these weapons can have, and the impact of their use on freedom of assembly and expression. In 2017, PHR researchers published a systematic review in the British Medical Journal Open, finding that kinetic impact projectiles “have caused significant morbidity and mortality during the past 27 years, much of it from penetrative injuries and head, neck and torso trauma.”  

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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