Jordan Graham was dazed as he trotted around the corner of a bank building in downtown Spokane, blood dripping from his mouth. Friends urged him to kneel on the sidewalk and compose himself.
Graham didn’t know it at the time, but the bone behind his upper lip was cracked in two places, on each side of his nose. His front teeth felt loose.
“My face lit up on fire,” he recalled. It took him a few moments to realize what had happened.
The 27-year-old had been downtown on the night of May 31 as police began their final series of advances to drive protesters and rioters out of the area. He was struck in the face when officers fired a volley of “less-lethal” projectiles on Howard Street near Riverside Avenue shortly after 10:30 p.m.
Graham and his friends say they were walking away, obeying verbal commands, when the officers began shooting from about half a block away.
“We were all walking backwards,” said Ian Garrity, 21. “Jordan had his hand up in the air filming … and then they started firing, and they got him right in the face.”
Less-lethal or kinetic impact projectiles are an ever-expanding category of weapons that include rubber bullets, foam-tipped 40 mm rounds, beanbags and other munitions designed to disperse or incapacitate people without penetrating their bodies.
Garrity believes it was a beanbag that struck Graham in the mouth; he said another beanbag grazed his own shoe.
Amid nationwide protests against police brutality prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, less-lethal projectiles have been a favorite tool of police for dispersing demonstrators, along with pepper spray, tear gas and flash-bang grenades. But human rights advocates warn those weapons can be deadly and say American police have used them in ways that run afoul of international law.
Protesters and journalists across the country have been maimed and injured by those weapons over the past two weeks.
A freelance photographer was permanently blinded in one eye while covering the protests in Minneapolis. A Black activist who trained police in San Jose, California, on implicit bias was seriously injured when an officer from that same department fired a rubber bullet at his groin. In Austin, Texas, a teenage boy spent days in the hospital after a beanbag round struck him in the head, and one officer fired the same type of round at the belly of a Black pregnant woman. A Spokesman-Review editor sustained severe bruising after a projectile struck him in the shoulder.
Graham, meanwhile, had his jaw wired shut after a friend drove him to the emergency room at MultiCare Deaconess Hospital. Without the wires, he said, his jaw might have healed with a permanent underbite. Until the wires are removed next month, he will remain on a liquid diet consisting mainly of soup broth, protein shakes and chocolate milk.
“We’ve seen across the country where people have lost eyes, they’ve cracked skulls. There’s been a number of these kinds of life-changing injuries,” said Brian Castner, a weapons expert and crisis adviser with Amnesty International who has been monitoring the use of less-lethal weapons around the world. “Our concern is there seems to be a very low threshold for the police to use these weapons.”
Under criticism for heavy-handed responses to recent protests, some cities and police agencies have taken steps to curtail the use of less-lethal weapons. City leaders in Seattle recently promised a ban on tear gas but claimed a narrow exception applied two days later.
Spokane police Ombudsman Bart Logue said his office has received an unusually high number of complaints since June 1, many related to the unrest downtown and the police response to it. Ten of those complaints are “pertaining to the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and dogs on peaceful protesters,” according to the office’s administrative specialist.
Sgt. Terry Preuninger, a spokesman for the Spokane Police Department, said less-lethal munitions can be a necessary tool when crowds are unruly, violating curfews and creating opportunities for bad actors to carry out violence or property damage.
Preuninger said Spokane police don’t make the decision to use impact projectiles lightly. On the “continuum of force,” he said, they’re akin to a baton strike. He acknowledged government and academic studies have found high rates of traumatic injuries among people struck by less-lethal rounds.
“They talk about why not to use it, and their arguments are cogent,” Preuninger said. “But what they’re not doing is saying, ‘Here’s your alternative.’ ”
Not just ‘rubber bullets’
Less-lethal projectiles take many forms, but some of the most common ones are fired from 37 mm or 40 mm weapons resembling grenade launchers. One of the largest manufacturers is Defense Technologies, a subsidiary of the Safariland Group, which offers proprietary training on its weapons to law enforcement agencies.
Less-lethal projectiles are often touted as a safer alternative to conventional bullets in situations involving armed or aggressive suspects, including those attempting “suicide by cop.” But Castner, with Amnesty International, said the scale of the proliferation of those weapons exemplifies “the general militarization of the police that’s happened over the last 20 years.”
According to United Nations protocols released this year, less-lethal weapons should be treated as “a measure of last resort” in breaking up assemblies, and impact projectiles “should generally be used only in direct fire with the aim of striking the lower abdomen or legs of a violent individual, and only with a view to addressing an imminent threat of injury to either a law enforcement official or a member of the public.”
A 2018 report by the group Physicians for Human Rights, which evaluated 1,925 cases of people injured by kinetic impact projectiles since 1990, found that 70% of their injuries were considered severe. Additionally, 294 of those people were permanently disabled, and 53 died.
“There’s really no situation in which using rubber bullets against large crowds of unarmed civilians is warranted,” Dr. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician and co-author of the report, recently told The Trace, a news organization focused on gun violence. “Rubber bullets are dangerous, indiscriminate and potentially lethal – and that’s a bad combination.”
Preuninger, the Spokane police sergeant, couldn’t immediately comment on how Graham was injured. Graham, who was approached for comment by The Spokesman-Review, said he hasn’t yet filed a complaint with the department or the ombudsman’s office, though two uniformed officers visited him at the hospital and asked questions about the incident.
Preuninger said Spokane officers are trained to aim less-lethal projectiles at the thighs and buttocks, but he acknowledged they are less accurate than conventional firearms and noted a host of real-world factors can skew a shot.
“The target moves. It rises up and down. It jumps around side to side,” Preuninger said. “Sometimes munitions fail. They don’t perform the way they were designed. Sometimes the operator fails. We miss targets. We are absolutely human, and we make mistakes.”
Preuninger said Spokane police years ago shifted away from hard rubber balls that consistently caused severe injuries and folded beanbag rounds that were highly inaccurate. The department now uses a range of less-lethal projectiles, including an upgraded, more accurate beanbag design that’s fired from a shotgun. He said officers fire each type of round at each other to know what they’re dealing with.
The department’s policy manual states, “Special impact munitions, when used properly, can be used in an attempt to deescalate a potentially deadly situation.” But the products are marketed for crowd-control purposes, too, and some Spokane officers are trained to use them in those scenarios.
Spokane patrol officers are authorized to use only one type of less-lethal projectile: a 40 mm “sponge round” made by Defense Technologies, which features a dome of semisoft foam atop a plastic base. Those can strike a person with as much force as a major league baseball pitch.
“It’s got to have some energy to it, or it’s not going to be effective,” Preuninger said.
Officers on the tactical and SWAT teams, meanwhile, may use beanbags and so-called baton rounds – stacks of three or four small pucks that are typically skipped across the ground to strike crowds of people in the shins and legs. Preuninger said the Spokane Police Department has both foam and wood baton rounds in its inventory, but only the foam ones were authorized for use on May 31.
After the rioting on May 31, Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl told City Council members that officers had been outnumbered and had “no way” to separate peaceful demonstrators from the vandals and looters among them. Police from multiple agencies dispersed the crowds with clouds of tear gas.
But Preuninger said police don’t indiscriminately fire less-lethal projectiles.
With skip-fired baton rounds, “it’s very challenging to select targets,” he said. “You would use that if you had a group of people who you saw all engaging in criminal behavior. I would not use that if I had one person on their knees praying, and the person next to them was throwing a rock at me, because I’m going to strike them both. We do have an obligation to try to discern who we’re using force against.”
‘Why would you ever use that on civilians?’
Graham, who is Black, said he supports the cause of peaceful protesters who have taken to the streets to demand change in American policing.
“It’s been a long time coming for police reform, and something has to be done about their blatant abuse of power,” he said.
But Graham, a skateboarder who lives in Spokane Valley, said the main reason he ventured downtown that night was to keep an eye on Pistole, a skate shop that sponsors him. He said he’d heard about the looting of the Nike store on Main Avenue and didn’t want the same thing to happen to a business he loves.
Graham said he ran into two friends who were also downtown, and they began skating on a set of stairs in front of the Bank of America Financial Center – just across the street from a line of police in riot gear. He said they were minding their own business, not confronting or hassling the officers. He said he had no idea the mayor had ordered a curfew.
Then the officers began shouting orders to leave the area. Graham and his friends say they complied but didn’t move fast enough.
The moment the officers began shooting was captured on video by two KHQ journalists, who ran away from the barrage of projectiles. Graham and his friends aren’t clearly visible in that video, though they provided other clips confirming their position.
Graham said he couldn’t make sense of the incident.
“Why would you ever use that on civilians,” he asked, “especially in a public place with no real apparent threat?”
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