‘Non-lethal projectiles’ was non-accurate police-speak

When Scott Olsen, an Iraq veteran demonstrating at last week’s Occupy Oakland protest, was badly injured, NPR reported he was struck by a “non-lethal projectile” fired by police. Some listeners immediately objected to the description, repeated on Morning Edition and in hourly newscasts.

“If people can be gravely or even fatally injured … by those projectiles, how can they reasonably be described as ‘non-lethal,'” asked Rick Kissell of Milwaukee, WI.

Bea Cantor from Midlothian, VA wrote: “When rubber bullets are used by police in other countries, they are just rubber bullets. Is NPR trying to whitewash the fact that our own police forces are turning guns on protesters by using a fancier name?”

Robert Garcia, executive producer of newscasts, told us that he was aware of the controversy over the police use of “so-called” non-lethal projectiles. “We attribute the terminology to the official agency involved and specifically avoid having our anchors use those terms unilaterally,” he wrote.

The reporter of two of the Morning Edition reports, Carrie Kahn, wrote that she felt that the term was the best she could find because Oakland, CA police used more than rubber bullets. “They have a wide array of arsenal from which to choose, including wooden dowels, bean bags and rubber bullets, and also the loose tear gas canister,” she wrote. “So to be the most accurate, and at the same time concise (I filed 45 second spots and a 1:40 package) I felt that was the best choice of words to use.”

She added: “I did say repeatedly in my reports that one protester was hit in the head by a non-lethal projectile and is hospitalized in critical condition. I think that highlights the immense harm these projectiles can do, even if they are classified as non-lethal.” [See the full statements by Garcia and Kahn.]

It’s still not clear just what hit Olsen, but he remains hospitalized after being struck in the head while police from Oakland and more than a dozen other agencies tried to clear protestors from downtown Oakland.

Sergeant Chris Bolton, the Oakland Police Department’s Chief of Staff, said the Oakland police used tear gas and bean bags, but the types of force used by other agencies that were there is still being investigated.

NPR’s use of the police term was understandable on deadline, when more details weren’t available. But stopping there is not good enough. Reporters and editors for NPR and all the news media—as well as local elected officials—need to insist that police say what it is they are firing on politically protesting citizens. The use of police-speak hides more than ordinary English would reveal. Interviews with police associations and experts finds that these ‘projectiles’ have indeed killed and injured people.

How many people nationally? We don’t know, for any of the different projectiles singly or for all of them as a group. Existing databases use unreliable self-reported information and overlap, according to Don Whitson, a sergeant with the Fort Collins Colorado Police Department and a chairman of an instruction program in the use of such weapons for the National Tactical Officers Association.

“There are some projects afoot to try to mine some of the databases and come up with an overview of injury and fatal injury, but there is nothing like that out there currently,” he said.

Pressed for some kind of number, he said: “Statistically it’s irrelevant. If it causes one death, then it’s not non-lethal.”

Whitson said the projectiles can kill even when used correctly. “You might be shooting at the pelvis, but they duck at the last minute and you hit them in the head. Or you hit them in the pelvis, but they fall and hit their head,” he said.

As a result, many police departments are moving away from saying “non-lethal,” though their substitute, while more accurate, is hardly better for news reports. It is “less lethal.”

“In recent years most police use the term ‘less-lethal’ recognizing that these tools can sometimes cause or contribute to someone’s death,” Darrel Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, wrote in an email. “They are not designed as lethal weapons, though that outcome unfortunately happens on occasion. I agree that ‘non-lethal’ is not a good term to use.”

This is fine as a classification for technical reports, but the public should know which one of these “less lethal” tools is being used, and how relatively dangerous they are one versus the other. According to the National Institute of Justice’s website, “less lethal” can refer to rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, pepper spray, stun grenades and “conducted-energy devices” such as Tasers.

As Christopher Stone, a Harvard professor and former colleague of mine who focuses on criminal justice issues, wrote in an email:

This is something I know a bit about because I served on the commission of inquiry into the death of Victoria Snelgrove in Boston in 2004, killed by a “less lethal” projectile fired by the police when it struck her in the eye. This was during the celebration of the Red Sox victory over the Yankees in the playoffs. The term “non-lethal” should not be used because these projectiles can be lethal. The industry term these days is “less lethal” but I agree that a more precise description (e.g. , rubber bullet, baton round, taser) is far better if it is accurate and available.

Labeling them “non-lethal” focuses on the intention of the object—crowd control. But what if they were called “deep-bruising projectiles?” This intention has a whole different feel. Or “bone-chipping projectiles?” Best simply to know what the projectile physically is.

In the case of the badly injured Olsen in Oakland, Sgt. Whitson added that he was surprised that there has been an issue determining what struck the Iraqi vet. “These projectiles leave a very distinct modality of injury. So, you wouldn’t expect to see the same injury from a thrown canister and from a high velocity bean bag,” Whitson said.

All of this is to say that “non-lethal” is flatly inaccurate and “less lethal” is about as clear as a cloud of tear gas.

None of this, however, is to say that police should never use rubber bullets, balls or other of these “less lethal” instruments for crowd control. That is not an ombudsman’s question. It is a policy issue that readers and policy makers will have to decide for themselves.

This column was originally published on NPR.org on Nov. 3, 2011.

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