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This Is What Rubber Bullets And Less-Lethal Rounds Can Do To You

“Did you see me f**k up those mother**kers?”

It sounds like a line in a Tarantino movie. But it was said by a police officer in Florida, right after firing a rubber bullet into a protester.

Another officer’s bodycam captures the incident that took place at Fort Lauderdale during a Black Lives Matter protest on May 31.

In the footage, the cop boasts to his colleague about hitting the protester, barely able to contain his glee.

He was unaware his bodycam was recording at the time.

Rubber bullets are known as “less-lethal” weapons, often used by law enforcement to help quash riots.

Less-lethal ammunition first appeared in the 1880s, when Singapore police fired sawn-off broom handles to disperse unruly crowds.

This was later adapted by the British, who replaced the wood for rubber bullets. During the Northern Ireland conflict known as “The Troubles,” it’s estimated that British soldiers fired in excess of 55,000 rounds in just five years.

In 2013, declassified documents revealed the UK Ministry of Defence knew rubber bullets were more dangerous than they had led the public to believe.

For starters, the term rubber bullet can be misleading. As well as solid rubber rounds, other variations exist. These might contain a wooden, metal or plastic core, housed within a rubber shell.

They also come in a variety of shapes and sizes: shotgun-style pellets, cylindrical rounds and those sculpted more like traditional bullets.

Less-lethal ammunition also covers beanbag rounds, lead pellets held in a small cloth bag, as well as sponge grenades, bullet-shaped plastic rounds with a dense foam nose.

And despite their toy-like names, all these weapons can often permanently maim, and in some cases, kill.

Since the George Floyd protests, media outlets have been awash with graphic images of injuries from rubber bullets and less-lethal rounds.

“The main injuries are bruising or contusion-based,” says Dr. Jeffrey M. Goodloe, who serves as a Member of the Board of Directors for the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“Some [of the bullets] can have sharper points or edges to them. In those cases we might see lacerations, abrasions or deeper penetrating injuries. And in situations where these weapons are not being fired as originally designed, we get more serious injuries.”

Studies show the blunt force trauma inflicted by these weapons can lead to fractures, nerve damage and internal injuries that can be fatal.

A 2017 review published by the British Medical Journal looked at injury data from 1,984 people shot with kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs), including rubber and plastic bullets.

Of these people, approximately 3% died as a result of their injuries and 15% suffered a permanent disability.

“We find that these projectiles have caused significant morbidity and mortality… much of it from penetrative injuries and head, neck and torso trauma,” report the study authors. “Given their inherent inaccuracy, potential for misuse and associated health consequences of severe injury, disability and death, KIPs do not appear to be appropriate weapons for use in crowd-control settings.”

During these recent protests, the seriously injured include:

  • Art student Megan Matthews, who suffered a broken nose, fractured facial bones and deep lacerations to her face when a rubber bullet struck her in Denver.
  • Activist Derrick Sanderlin, who provides bias training for his local police force, was reportedly shot in groin in San Jose. He needed surgery for a ruptured testicle, and was later told by doctors he might not be able to have children.
  • A homeless man in a wheelchair, who was struck in the head in Los Angeles as a street protest passed him.

Also caught in police crosshairs was photojournalist Linda Tirado. She was covering the protests in Minneapolis when she was shot in the face.

“I was taking pictures of the police when a round caught me in the eye,” she says. “I remember a thud on my head, my goggles falling off and my face feeling wet with blood. I knew I’d been hit.”

Tirado was led away and driven to the hospital by protesters. “There was so much adrenaline, I don’t remember the pain. But I can remember the pressure in my swollen face.”

She underwent surgery within an hour of arriving at the hospital, but the incident left her permanently blind in her left eye.

These are just a few of a catalog of reported injuries over the last few months of protests against police brutality.

In a list compiled by Los Angeles researcher Scott Reynhout, at least 60 people have suffered serious head injuries, brain damage, lacerations, bruises, broken jaws and severe eye trauma.

“It’s very rare to have internal bleeding,” says Dr. Goodloe. “But it’s possible if there is a direct impact in the upper abdomen, over the liver or spleen.”

There’s currently little field data on US police use of less-lethal weapons. Officers are not required to log their use, while national standards do not exist.

This means police departments must set their own rules. Denver PD guidelines state that less-lethal projectiles should not be deployed “to the head, eyes, throat, neck, breasts of a female, genitalia, or spinal column.”

The United Nations has also issued guidance on the use of less-lethal weapons, stating, “they should be used only in direct fire with the aim of striking the lower abdomen or legs of a violent individual.”

The original idea was to aim these weapons at the ground so they bounce up and impact in the leg or thigh. “When used as designed, they should not cause deep or permanent injury,” says Dr Goodloe. However, we’re seeing them ricochet in unpredictable ways, especially if the surface ground is uneven.”

And from the reported injuries sustained by so many, it is clear that more work needs to be done. These rubber bullets are reportedly being fired in close-quarters, aimed in such a way where they strike the head, neck or chest.

“America is having a realization similar to that of The Troubles,” says Linda Tirado. “We’re seeing how dangerous these weapons can be.”

In recent weeks, physicians and medical organizations, including the American Academy of Ophthalmology, have called for an end of the use of rubber bullets.

For now however, the advice to stay safe is to put distance between you and a potential less-lethal weapon. “The further you’re away from the bullet, the safer you are in many cases,” says Dr. Goodloe.

“If you’re not able to do that, then avoid looking directly at where these projectiles are coming from, and crouch down, turning to the side. Protect your face, neck and upper abdomen.”

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