Metro Louisville

Days of relative peace between police and protesters demanding racial justice came to a close Monday night amid a fog of smoke grenades and pepper rounds, the thunder of flash bangs and the high-pitched whine of a sound cannon.

These are among the crowd weapons Louisville Metro Police Department has employed to control and disperse Louisville’s demonstrations for racial injustice.

Crowd control weapons are often called “less than lethal” or “non-lethal” weapons designed to deter and disperse demonstrators. Many were first devised by, or used by the military, and are capable of causing permanent injury and death.

Senior Medical Advisor Dr. Ranit Mishori with Physicians for Human Rights says terms like “less than lethal” are misnomers disguising the short-term, long-term and fatal impacts of crowd control weapons.

“When you call something non-lethal you get the wrong impression they are benign,” Mishori said. “But the fact is, they can cause immediate harm.”

Protesters say the use of these weapons against them only further demonstrates their point: police are using brutality to suppress protests against police brutality, according to Shameka Parrish-Wright, Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression co-chair.

“I feel like they’re bringing out all their toys that have been stuck in a warehouse and they are just unleashing them on us and it’s unwarranted,” Parrish-Wright said.

LMPD did not immediately respond to questions about crowd control weapons and use of force.

Flash Point

LMPD’s first use of crowd control weapons occurred moments after seven people were shot during the first night of protests on May 28th.

Police fired a flash bang high above the crowd. The explosion sounded similar to a gunshot, but louder, reverberating around Jefferson Square Park. The bang compounded the confusion and anger among protesters. The crowd fell back, but continued to protest.

“The police (are) trying to get crowd control. It sounded like they set off a bomb to get the crowd stirred up and maybe some tear gas, but I think someone down there started shooting,” said Larry, a protester at the scene who declined to give his last name. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but this is where we are now.”

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Police fire tear gas and pepper balls on protesters after seven people were shot in downtown Louisville on May 28,2020.

Flash bangs fall under the category of disorientation devices, first developed by the British Special Service in the 1960s, according to Lethal In Disguise, a report by Physicians for Human Rights. Like other explosives, flash bangs can cause blast and shrapnel injuries as well as asphyxiation, heart attacks and internal bleeding. A review by Pro Publica in 2015 found at least 50 Americans have been seriously injured or killed by flash bangs since 2000.

Amid recent protests in Louisville, police have often fired flash bangs high into the air, but even then, the sound of a flash bang going off can incite panic, causing people to stampede and hurt each other in the process.

“The idea is to de-escalate protests and demonstrations when they become violent,” Mishori said. “But what these types of weapons do is they can cause additional panic and fear. People can get disoriented.”

That night’s protests grew out of a spontaneous outpouring of grief following police killings around the country including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Hours earlier, police released Kenneth Walker’s 911 call following the police shooting of Taylor.

Chemical Weapons

Police use of force against protesters did not end until five days later, the day after a National Guard member shot and killed David McAtee at his barbecue stand at the intersection of 26th Street and Broadway.

In the minute preceding his death, police fired pepper balls on a crowd out past curfew near his stand. In a video breakdown by the NYT, it appears the volley of pepper balls may have prompted McAtee to fire a weapon.

Michael Brown, the secretary of the state’s executive cabinet, said McAtee was the first to shoot. He said he was unaware of LMPD’s actions in the video, but that gunfire doesn’t sound like pepper balls.

More than any other crowd control weapons, LMPD has relied on the use of chemical irritants, including tear gas, smoke and pepper balls to control and disperse crowds in the course of protests for racial justice.

The low, rapid-fire thud of the pepper ball rounds is ever-present in footage of police firing on protesters during protests in Louisville. Pepper balls are a type of irritant shot from a modified paint ball gun. Similar to a paint ball, the round explodes on impact, emitting a small cloud of capsicum powder, the same ingredient found in hot peppers.

Here’s protester Jorden Ward describing what happened to him.

“So, I got about three feet, then a cop came out of nowhere around a corner and he shot me with the little pepper balls twice. It hit me in the arm and it busted open and it got in my eyes and everything. I couldn’t see anymore I couldn’t breathe. It was all in my throat, it hurt, like in my nose, I was spitting, I was choking,” Ward said.

Physicians for Human Rights found that oleoresin capsicum (OC), caused 5,875 minor injuries, 848 moderate injuries and 433 severe injuries in a review of 14 studies, according to a report on crowd control weapons. The report also found that pepper spray accounted for more injuries than in the gas form used in pepper ball rounds. However, pepper ball rounds have the added effect of being a projectile, which has left visible welts on protesters.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

A protester hit by a pepper ball in Louisville on May 30, 2020.

On Saturday May 30, Fischer ordered a dusk to dawn curfew following a night of unrest that caused property damage across downtown. But even before curfew had begun, police began firing chemical irritants, including smoke and tear gas on protesters at 6th and Liberty.

Similar to the contents of the pepper balls, tear gas is actually an aerosolized powder. Police fire canisters of tear gas at protesters triggering a thermal explosion that disperses the gas.  The fog causes tears to roll down your face. The chemicals burn your eyes and skin. It can cause temporary blindness and victims say it feels like the gas is stealing your breathe from your lungs.

In a review of 31 studies, Physicians for Human Rights found 5,131 injuries or death from chemical irritants. Of those, two people died, 70 people suffered permanent disabilities and about 98.6 percent of people recovered from their injuries.

The use of chemical irritants amid a pandemic is especially concerning to medical experts who say they make the body more susceptible to catching COVID-19. The irritants also increase people’s chances of shedding virus through uncontrollable fits of coughing and sneezing, Mishori said.

“You’re told by the CDC not to touch your face or rub your eyes, yet you have irritants that make you do all of that,” Mishori said. “This is exactly the opposite of what we want to happen.”

In a press conference on June 10, Interim Police Chief Robert Schroeder announced a revision in the city’s use of tear gas. Going forward, Schroeder said the order to fire teargas must come from him, or an official he designates.

“I know several peaceful protesters got caught up in situations where tear gas had to be used and I regret that those people had to experience that,” Schroeder said.

Sound and Fury

On Monday night, police again fired pepper balls and smoke grenades at protesters. A line of black-clad LMPD officers in helmets, armor and riot shields declared the unlawful assembly around 7 p.m. as protesters blocked traffic on Ninth Street.

Protesters declined to disperse and the line of riot police pushed north on 9th Street firing pepper balls and impact rounds toward the crowd and vehicles blocking the road. In one instance, a police officer in full riot gear pushed a woman to the ground before arresting her.

Police eventually pushed the crowd back to the intersection of Jefferson and 7th streets, near LMPD headquarters. Two lines formed, one of police clad in riot shields and armor, a second of protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter.”

Amid the furor, the police took several steps backward. Protesters cheered in response thinking the police were backing off, but within a minute or so, officers fired a volley of pepper balls into the crowd.

Shortly after, what sounded like an extremely loud car alarm began sounding. In a police briefing later that night, Schroeder said LMPD had deployed an “acoustic device” also known as an LRAD “Long Range Acoustic Device.”

Schroeder said the device had no discernible impact on protesters, but these weapons have been found to cause significant harm to eardrums resulting in permanent hearing loss. Initially developed in the 1990s for crowd control, the U.S. military first used acoustic weapons in Iraq in 2004.

In 2012, the city of Pittsburgh agreed to pay more than $200,000 to settle two cases of injuries because of police use of LRAD weapons on a neighborhood street, according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania. One person involved, Karen Piper, suffered permanent hearing loss.

Monday night was also not the first time police have used acoustic devices on Black Lives Matter protesters. In 2014, police in Ferguson, Missouri, used a truck-mounted model against protesters demonstrating in the wake of the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown, according to the report. In that instance, police used a weapon capable of emitting 149 decibels at a distance of one meter, enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

De-escalation

Even after police deployed smoke canisters, pepper balls and the acoustic device, protesters held their ground Monday night. Tensions only de-escalated after a protester emerged from the crowd to negotiate between police and demonstrators. Police agreed to back up in exchange for protesters doing the same.  Moments later, there was a city block’s worth of distance as police stepped backwards and protesters trickled back toward Jefferson Square Park.

Dr. Mishori with Physicians for Human Rights said that when protesters demonstrate peacefully, law enforcement should not use weapons that have the potential to cause serious injury. When weapons are used, Mishori advised that police set up first-aid nearby to help injured protesters — a task that so far, protesters have organized themselves.

But before any weapons are drawn, police should begin by conversing with protesters and de-escalating the situation according to Mishori.

“De-escalation should be the goal for any police department,” Mishori said. “And that usually done through dialogue and communication and not through the indiscriminate use of crowd control weapons.”

On Tuesday, Mayor Greg Fischer said he also wants police to prioritize de-escalation.

“My emphasis is always on de-escalation, de-escalation, de-escalation, the best tactics to provide that they’re most familiar with on how to do that,” Fischer said.

 

This story has been updated. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.