New York: Ban “Rubber” Bullets

In the weeks after George Floyd’s death, 1,600 mass demonstrations erupted across all 50 states, triggering federal leadership to tighten their grip on “LAW AND ORDER!” Inflammatory rhetoric from the President himself cascaded down to state and local levels, as his calls to shoot looters on sight evolved into a local police chief stating that “we’re shooting African Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be.” Emboldened by a green light from the Executive, many local police departments turned to violent crowd control tactics, including one of their most deceptively brutal weapons: rubber bullets.

The term “rubber bullet” conjures up images of a bouncy ball fired from a paintball gun into your shin, or a supersonic spitball smacking against your forearm — harsh, but innocent, and certainly not lethal. This innocuous misconception is exactly what makes rubber bullets so dangerous. 

Rubber bullets, officially referred to as Kinetic Impact Projectiles (KIPs), aren’t actually made of rubber. The most common variations include plastic-metal composites, or simply metal bullets coated in plastic, typically the size of a large marshmallow or soda can. 

Source: @MakaylaBergasse, Twitter

During their introduction in the 1970s, rubber bullets were referred to as “non-lethal” crowd control mechanisms. And yet, a meta-analysis from the British Journal of Health found that of 1,983 individuals who suffered injuries from a Kinetic Impact Projectile, 3% were killed, and an additional 15% suffered permanent injuries, typically to their eyes or face. Rubber bullets have since been reclassified as “less lethal” in the Use of Force Guidelines for most local police departments and the United Nations, but this reclassification does not solve the problem, nor does it accurately represent the level of morbidity inflicted upon victims.

Source: British Journal of Health, 2018

According to Brian Higgins, the former police chief of Bergen County, New Jersey, these weapons can “penetrate the skin, break bones, fracture the skull and explode the eyeball,” consistent with observed injuries in Minneapolis demonstrators and beyond. Still, they are culturally perceived as a merciful alternative to real bullets, which emboldens officers to use them with a dangerous lack of restraint. 

Accountability measures like post-incident documentation are almost non-existent when a KIP is fired. The International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations published their own crowd-control weapons study which notes: 

“While [KIPs] may theoretically offer an option for reduced force, in practice, and perhaps because of the assumption that they are always less lethal, the weapons are often used in an indiscriminate manner, without exhausting all other possible peaceful means first. This is due, in large part, to inadequate pre-deployment testing, insufficient training, lack of regulations, and poor accountability mechanisms.”

Recent demonstrations have helped expose the ugly reality that many police officers are already too willing to pull the trigger in the name of self-defense (never mind that Rayshard Brooks was shot twice in the back). If you replace a real gun with a “non-lethal” weapon, the likelihood of that weapon being discharged spikes dramatically. Although the official classification of KIPs has transitioned from “non-lethal” to “less lethal,” their cultural perception, particularly in the eyes of police officers, have not.

Most protocols for the use of KIPs require officers to aim for soft muscular tissue — not the face or eyes — and to fire from a safe distance. Still, the aforementioned BJH study found that 49% of deaths and 84% of permanent injuries related to rubber bullet attacks occurred from impacts to the head or neck, suggesting that protocols are not strict enough to protect protesters, or that they simply are not followed at all. A violent clash between a crowd and police forces creates a chaotic environment in which training protocols are easily ignored, and accountability is almost effortlessly sidestepped. The INCLO furthers:

“Safe shooting distances are not well validated, however, and are highly variable among weapons, countries and manufacturers. In practice, deployment of KIPs may occur from distances much closer than deemed safe.”

Source: The International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations, 2018

Even when the proper protocols are followed, the weapons endanger uninvolved bystanders who never even assumed the risk of being involved in a protest. Journalists and demonstrators shared an overwhelming number of anecdotes of being brutalized by impacts to the face, eyes, and other parts of the body, which were corroborated by the BJH analysis: “several studies reported instances in which KIP weapons unintentionally injured bystanders and non-violent demonstrators instead of the specific individuals that were targeted.” During a protest in San Jose, a nonviolent protester suffered a ruptured testicle, prompting a city councilmember to acknowledge that KIPs “happened to cause an extensive amount of collateral damage on innocent protesters, and in my mind and the mayor’s, obviously that’s just not acceptable.”

[The video below is very difficult to watch.]

The use of Kinetic Impact Projectiles to disburse crowds represents a morbid use of excessive force that has maimed, blinded, and even killed individuals who were exercising their Constitutional right to peaceful assembly. The use of KIPs against crowds should be banned, starting with New York City.

Source: NYPD Use of Force Guidelines

The ban is in no way a radical idea. Both the UN and Amnesty International have been calling for this ban for years in their Basic Principles on Use of Force. Lawmakers in San Jose have moved to ban rubber bullets, as did a New Jersey Mayor. More than 1.2 million people have signed a petition calling for the ban started by Physicians for Human Rights. The topic has been covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and CNN. The ACLU published a fact sheet which deemed KIPs an inappropriate method of crowd control. 

The movement has momentum, but it needs a leader to open the flood gates. New York City, a cultural leader in global politics — not to mention the headquarters of the United Nations — is the ideal leader for a national movement to protect nonviolent demonstrators from KIPs. New York acted as a model for the nation in efficiently passing meaningful police reform following the murder of George Floyd, including the criminalization of chokeholds, requirement of oversight of police surveillance technologies, and the affirmation of the right to record police officers in public, among others. 

Banning the use of rubber bullets on crowds belongs on that list. 

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