Caught off guard, agencies place emergency orders for riot gear

By Chris Halsne and Sasha Fernandez / IRW

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A special report with WUSA9

After two nights of chaotic protests near the White House at the end of May, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department found its supply of rubber ball grenades, high-impact sponge rounds, long-range tear-gas projectiles, and pepper spray nearly depleted.

The shortage did not last long.

The next day, according to city records, the department placed a “priority” $100,000 purchase order for these “less-lethal” munitions. The list of items requested from Atlantic Tactical included “special launchers for Metro PD,” 60-caliber rubber balls, chemical-agent grenades — both tear gas and pepper gas — and direct-impact markers, which are advertised as “an excellent solution whether you need to incapacitate a single subject or control a crowd.”

In all, MPD spent more than $309,000 on crowd-control supplies in five days. Purchase orders show the department spent $18,500 on plastic handcuffs; $30,000 for less-lethal training kits; $77,689 for rifle-resistant ballistic helmets,; and about $83,000 in laser eye-protection sunglasses for officers.

MPD declined an interview request, but sent IRW a statement, which read in part:
“The Department is committed to working to safeguard the city during riots by having available to officers less-lethal tools to deploy to disperse rioters.”

Such large purchases and the use of military-style equipment has come under renewed focus as police departments nationwide are under heightened scrutiny for their tactics, funding and training.

The order was part of a nationwide buying spree by cities across the country seeking to stock up on less-lethal weapons in response to growing protests against police brutality. While police say the projectiles are safe alternatives to firing real bullets into a crowd, the projectiles still hurt dozens of protesters across the country. Nationwide, police “partially” blinded eight individuals on May 30 with forms of less-lethal projectiles, according to a Washington Post investigation. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a police officer threw a flash-bang grenade at close range and burned a bystander. In Austin, a less-lethal projectile broke a protester’s jaw, which required two surgeries.

In Orange County California, police sent military-grade vehicles to neighboring counties as a precautionary measure, after protesters had thrown rocks and fireworks at officers in Anaheim. And in the nation’s capital, police lowered a helicopter beneath the height of the surrounding buildings and hovered above protesters’ heads. The helicopter’s blades created wind speeds equivalent to a tropical storm.

To understand how police were preparing for this unrest, IRW requested documents from police departments across the country. They paint a picture of local police departments placing large orders for munitions that suggest they were preparing for violent clashes, many that never came.

What DC police ordered
  • More than $309,000 total spent on crowd-control supplies
  • $100,000 in less-lethal munitions
  • $18,500 worth of plastic handcuffs
  • $30,000 for less-lethal training kits
  • $77,689 for rifle-resistant ballistic helmets
  • Approx. $83,000 in laser eye-protection sunglasses

“The June purchase reflects both the increased occurrence of rioting so far this year as well as general preparations for possible civil disturbance for the rest of the year,” Kristen Metzger, deputy director of communications for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email. “The laser-protection glasses were purchased in response to new threats to officer safety experience this summer.”

Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina, was frank in his assessment of the readiness of police departments, such as MPD, for unplanned violent protests.

“Were they prepared? No! When it comes to things like civil disturbance, we’re not ready for these things when they hit,” he said during an interview with IRW. “You can’t predict what you need. There is a shelf life on irritants and other crowd deterrents. There is no warehouse full of this stuff.”

Alpert also stressed that decisions about what to buy for crowd control are “tactical decisions with political approval.”

He said, “These are not in the budget. Ninety-six percent of police costs are personnel. A couple hundred thousand dollars in equipment is proportionally a larger percentage. Normally, the police chief has to get permission from the mayor or at least a city manager to make these kinds of purchases.” IRW reached out by email to the communications staff  in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office to ask if they were aware of these purchase orders for less-lethal munitions in early June, and they didn’t respond.

In July, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation prohibiting the use of these “less-lethal” projectiles and forms of chemical irritants against people participating in First Amendment assemblies.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said in a recent interview that the council passed this legislation because they determined the police response was appropriate for riots, not for what, in many cases, were peaceful protests.

“We have seen deployment of chemical irritants, less-lethal projectiles, in ways that I don’t think are consistent with what we expect from a First Amendment assembly,” Allen said. “These are tools that can cause pretty significant damage.”

Allen said that this past summer’s emergency law prevents police from using less-lethal projectiles against people peacefully protesting, but he said it has caused “a lot of confusion,” because the law doesn’t account for what happens when peaceful protests turn into riots.

The emergency legislation is set to expire Oct. 19, and Allen said the D.C. Committee for the Judiciary and Public Safety will hold a hearing on Oct. 15, in which government and public witnesses will make their case on whether the emergency legislation should become permanent.

“That’s why there’s the hearing, to really work through and wrestle that out to make sure that when we write this law, we get it right,” he said.

Some of those in the crowds in Washington still suffer from wounds inflicted then. Katherine, who asked that her full name not be used because the event was traumatic and she is considering whether to file suit, said she asked a Metropolitan Police Officer what he was doing pepper-spraying bystanders and then said “to show some self-control.” She said that the officer then began making gestures to another officer.

“A second later, I felt something hit my arm, like a really hard snap of a rubber band, and there was an explosion and sparks,” she said.

Katherine's arm was bruised by a stun/flash-bang grenade
Protester shows her arm, bruised by a stun/flash-bang grenade. (Photo obtained by IRW)

Based on a Vice video that Katherine said shows her attack, the officer used a stun/flash-bang grenade, which hit Katherine in the arm and shot off sparks as she ran. In the immediate aftermath, Katherine said she suffered from a scrape on her elbow, nausea and a cough. She said she immediately left the protest.

But she said the bruise on her elbow lasted for several weeks and she also suffered from trauma and anxiety.

MPD was not alone in its apparent lack of preparation for protests and crowd control.

What other police departments bought

IRW sent similar purchase-order requests to other police agencies that were dealing with violent protests at the beginning of June. Those cities included Seattle, Minneapolis, Houston, Baltimore and Denver.

On June 1, Denver police invoices show the department spent $181,000 on less-lethal munitions, including $35,200 on pepper balls, $27,210 on “Stinger 32-caliber rubber balls,” and $19,450 for “Impact Exact Sponge Rounds.” The overall police budget for the month totaled around $750,000 for all equipment and services.

Milo Schwab, a Denver-based civil rights attorney who filed a federal lawsuit accusing the City of Denver of deploying chemical agents and injurious, less-lethal ballistics against protesters without provocation, was angered by the list of purchases when told of the findings.

“It certainly tells me that after four days of violence and misuse of force, the police department decided to ratify that conduct and planned to double-down on munitions-based efforts,’ Schwab said in an interview. “The city was aware of how these munitions were being used but decided to stock up anyway. I know two people who lost their vision to rubber bullets. I have a client who was shot in the forehead, and it collapsed his sinus cavity. That was on June 1,” he added.

“I’ve been stunned by the use of the 40-caliber bullets,” Scwab continued. “How can you fire them into a crowd? The weapons are meant to inflict pain on a person, but they can kill you if you’re hit in the head. Stunning use. It shows a ratification, an endorsement of how the weapons would be used after they knew what was occurring. They said, ‘Yep. Let’s refill!’ ”

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on June 25 limiting Denver’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Similar lawsuits forcing police to stop using less-lethal munitions followed in Seattle, Portland, Dallas and Oakland.

‘The cops did a drive-by and shot me.’

Alex H., who does not want his full name published for fear of further retribution, said he can attest to that infliction of pain.

He lives in an apartment building on Denver’s Capitol Hill, which became a hotspot of protests and rioting May 31 and June 1.

Early in the morning, Alex stepped outside into the alley to smoke a cigarette on what he called “his front porch.” He encountered a small group of vandals pouring gasoline into the dumpster.

“It’d been going on all night. Rioters had been setting trash cans on fire, shooting off fireworks. I felt I needed to protect the property, my family, my neighbors. My landlord has been good to me. I went down to the group and told them, ‘Nah! Not tonight. Not here,” he said.

At the moment he was attempting to shoo away the small group, a Denver police cruiser pulled into the alley.

“Someone threw a rock at the windshield, and the next thing I know, the cops did, like a drive-by,” Alex said. “They didn’t jump out. One of them shot out the window.”

Bleeding welt on Alex's back
Photos taken by Alex’s girlfriend show a high-impact sponge round nearly tore through his skin and created an apple-sized welt on his back and rib cage. (Photo obtained by IRW)

“It hurt a lot. It was so powerful, it took me off my feet. Knocked me down. I laid there for a good 30 seconds,” he said. “I kept thinking, I’m not dead. I’m a 6-foot Black man, a pretty tough guy. Consider myself athletic. You know Mike Tyson? It felt like I was his body bag. It was that hard. It folded me. The pain was intense.”

Alex filed a complaint with the internal affairs unit to determine who shot him after the two officers in that cruiser drove away.

“They were having fun that night,” he said of the police. “It was not about protecting citizens, but about shooting them.”

Alex also said during a recent interview with IRW, his first with the media, that he feels he was singled out among the half-dozen people in the alley with gas cans, matches and rocks: “I was the only Black guy. It was an entirely white group. I yelled at them that what they were doing was so damaging to Black people. I get that there’s a bunch of people really upset by what’s been happening (with police brutality), but you see what happens? The Black guy. He’s the one targeted.”

Alex told IRW he missed two months’ of work as a landscaper because of his injury, and he’s still expecting a hefty bill from the doctor’s office.

The sponge round shot at Alex
The sponge round shot at Alex. (Photo obtained by IRW)

Alex said he did hear back from internal affairs by phone. They essentially told him they couldn’t track which patrol car or police officers were in that alley unless he could provide more details. He asked if they could match the sponge round to a gun. Internal affairs said they would get back with him and have not. He has not filed a lawsuit.

Denver police declined to answer questions or provide a statement other than to say: “Due to pending litigation, we will not be able to comment on this matter.”

Doctors weigh in

While these weapons are colloquially termed as “less-lethal,” they can cause harm. A 2016 report produced by the Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations documented Kinetic Impact Projectiles (KIPs), such as rubber bullets and sponge rounds, and how they can cause serious injuries, including fractured bones, blunt force trauma, internal bleeding and blindness.

Besides causing injuries, KIPs often are inaccurate and miss intended targets.

The 2016 report stated: “Unlike a traditional bullet, KIPs tend to be oddly shaped or large, which causes tumbling rather than direct forward movement. Put simply, while losing speed (to lessen the risk of penetrating injury) KIPs often also lose accuracy.

Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights, said in an interview that these projectiles have different effects based on the distance at which they are shot. From far away, she said, they lose their accuracy, but up close, the potential for harm is greater.

“The impact is live ammunition,” Mishori said.

The inaccuracy of the KIPs and the movement of chemical irritant particles within the air, increases the possibility of harming bystanders at a crowded protest. A recent analysis by Physicians for Human Rights and a University of California, Berkeley researcher found that this summer, in less than two months, there were at least 115 people who suffered from head and neck injuries caused by KIPs.

A group of doctors in Austin, Texas, urged police not to use less-lethal weapons after treating people severely injured by bean-bag bullets.

Minneapolis Police take less-aggressive tactics

The geographic heart of nationwide protests over police brutality and the treatment of Black communities is Minneapolis. On May 25, George Floyd was arrested for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store. A Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for between eight and nine minutes. Floyd died. Video of the incident emerged within the week, sparking waves of protests, and more video evidence was released later this summer and fall. Prosecutors fired and charged Derek Chauvin, a veteran officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers on the scene were terminated and charged with aiding and abetting unintentional second-degree murder.

According to purchase orders from the week of June 1, Minneapolis police bought only $2,000 worth of “ammunition.” Instead, the department decided to purchase $32,000 worth of individual cans of 14-ounce pepper spray and a small supply of “irritants.” Another invoice added $25,000 in full-face threaded respirators for officers in the field.

IRW asked the Minneapolis police to respond to leadership’s apparent choice to handle protesters with chemical deterrents instead of less-lethal munitions. A spokesperson for the city confirmed such a conversation occurred, but provided that comment without attribution. Our request for an interview remains under consideration.

And the Baltimore Police Department said they are experiencing delays in responding to public-records requests.

Adam Marshall, a staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the timeframe required for fulfilling public records requests differs from state to state.

Marshall said that if police departments are unable to fulfill the requests “under the timeline provided” by law, they should invest in the resources and personnel to comply.

“If law enforcement agencies are delaying responding to records requests, they are depriving the public of information that they need to engage in debate and discussion,” he said. “…And if there’s no basis for it in the public records law, it’s also unlawful.”

Houston police have responded by telling IRW there are 190 relevant purchase orders, but the department has not said when, or if, they will turn over the records. Seattle police did respond to IRW’s public-records request in June, saying that due to COVID-19, they would respond — but not until November.