At least 100 law enforcement agencies — many in large cities — used some form of tear gas against civilians protesting police brutality and racism in recent weeks, according to an analysis by The New York Times. This brief period has seen the most widespread domestic use of tear gas against demonstrators since the long years of unrest in the late 1960s and early ’70s, according to Stuart Schrader of Johns Hopkins University, who studies race and policing.
“Thousands and thousands of utterly ordinary people who thought they were going to an ordinary protest event are finding themselves receiving a really aggressive police response,” he said. “That itself is a bit horrifying. The police have actually succeeded in making people more angry.”
The Times reached out to police departments, and reviewed photos, videos, press briefings and police statements from hundreds of incidents across the country since May 26, when the first protests began in Minneapolis. The list here is not exhaustive — police departments that did not provide clear answers or denied the use of tear gas are not included.
Where the police used tear gas
By The New York Times
If used appropriately, it drives people to flee the gas, which irritates their eyes, skin and lungs without causing serious, long-term injuries in most. But in cases where law enforcement misuses the agent, it can cause debilitating injuries. Prolonged exposure or high doses can lead to permanent vision damage, asthma and other long-term injuries.
Research increasingly shows tear gas and other weapons that have been deemed by law enforcement as being nonlethal can seriously injure and sometimes even kill.
There’s also evidence that the use of tear gas could worsen the spread of coronavirus. Because tear gas is indiscriminate, it makes it hard for the police to limit the impact to the intended target, and some experts question whether its use was necessary in recent protests.
Iowa City, June 3
Taylor Hootman/@taylorhootman via Storyful
“The use of escalated force by law enforcement, all that serves to do is increase violence, increase injuries,” said Jennifer Cobbina, professor at the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, who studies race-related protests. “The primary mission of a police officer is to keep the peace and to protect and serve.”
The widespread use of tear gas has prompted pushback, with some lawmakers calling for a ban of its use in Massachusetts and New Orleans. Other cities, including Denver, Seattle, Portland and Dallas, have all temporarily banned police from using tear gas.
How the police used tear
gas in recent protests
Experts say officers should fire canisters at a short distance, toward the edge of a crowd, to minimize the number of people exposed and to avoid injuries from impact. But photos and videos of police encounters with protesters have revealed tactics inconsistent with the safest use of tear gas.
Protester standing in a cloud of tear gas in downtown Atlanta.Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press
A man from Kansas City, Kan., sustained a serious leg injury from a tear gas canister fired by the police, according to KCTV News 5.
Balin Brake, a 21-year-old student in Fort Wayne, Ind., lost an eye after being hit by a tear gas canister. The police released a statement saying that tear gas was used after orders had been given to leave the area.
“I’m angry that I was protesting police brutality and fell victim to police brutality,” Mr. Brake said in a phone interview.
Scenes from Fort Wayne, Ind., where Mr. Brake lost an eye.Photo from Ian Stoots (left) and Jason Melgoza (right)
In Charlotte, N.C., WCNC reported that the police used tear gas from both ends of a street, confining protesters. In one video from Philadelphia, which was shared widely on social media, police officers threw tear gas into a large crowd trapped on the side of the highway with nowhere to go but up an embankment.
Philadelphia, June 1
Elias Sell via Storyful
“We are seeing it being used when people are trapped in certain locations,” said Anna Feigenbaum, an expert on tear gas at Bournemouth University in England. “According to protocol, there should always be escape routes, a way out.”
In Louisville, Ky., protesters reported that tear gas was used during peaceful protests, without warning. In Portland, Ore., a judge placed temporary restrictions on the police department’s use of tear gas, saying it was used to disperse peaceful protesters.
Portland, Ore., June 7
Justin Yau via Storyful
“What’s really important is that these videos right now are showing so many law enforcement officials in so many cities using tear gas,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “The public is seeing for themselves that most of these protesters are peaceful.”
Police chiefs across the nation have defended using tear gas, saying that it was a last resort after announcing that crowds should disperse or when officers were faced with violent protesters.
Protesters flee as tear gas is deployed by the Seattle police.Lindsey Wasson/Reuters
“We gave a clear, detailed dispersal order; it was given numerous times,” said the police chief, Deanna Cantrell, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., at a press conference, adding that a standoff had lasted for hours. “Bottles, rocks, fireworks, other objects started being thrown at law enforcement.”
When asked about tear gas use, the Duluth police department in Minnesota emailed a statement: “It was only after careful consideration and counsel with the commanders at the scene did the use of gas get approved, which quickly and successfully was instrumental in dispersing an increasingly escalating, dangerous and illegal assembly.”
In a statement, the Lewisville police department in Texas said tear gas was the safest option: “The only other means to get people out of the street would have been to physically move them, which would have increased the risk of a violent confrontation.”
The Oklahoma City police department said that its officers have used more than 25 hand-deployable and more than 95 launchable gas munitions since May 30, in response to protesters vandalizing private and public property, and assaulting police officers.
Several police departments have reported injuries among officers, with some even shot at from the crowds. The St. Louis police department reported that four police officers were struck by gunfire.
“The appropriateness of police actions must always be judged by the circumstances in which they occur,” said Steve Marshall, the Alabama attorney general, in a statement earlier this month.
Andrew Walsh, deputy chief of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said that this is the first time since the 1992 Rodney King riots that tear gas had to be used to control public disorder in the Las Vegas area.
Police departments in the two largest cities — New York and Los Angeles — said they did not use tear gas, though they used other riot control tactics including batons and rubber bullets.
Dispute over semantics
“Tear gas,” an umbrella term for crowd control chemicals, is not legally defined. Two chemicals deployed during recent protests are stockpiled in many police arsenals: CS, a synthetic chemical released by grenades and canisters launched toward protesters; and OC, derived from chili peppers, which has been adapted for canisters, grenades, shells and sprays.
Tear gas canister and shell found at scenes of protests.Left to right: Adam Bettcher/Reuters, Lawrence Bryant/Reuters, David Ryder/Getty Images
Pepper compounds may sound more benign than “tear gas,” but newer munitions using pepper-derived chemicals may be just as potent as traditional crowd-control substances. They have similar effects on people who are exposed: excruciating pain and respiratory distress.
“They are enriched to levels that would never occur in nature — a hundred-fold or thousand-fold more potent,” said Dr. Sven Eric Jordt, a Duke University professor who studies the use of tear gas.
Yet some in law enforcement still draw a distinction between the two, and some public officials assume that pepper compounds are safer. But they are not, Dr. Jordt said.
“I think they are actively gaslighting the public by making this distinction,” he said. “There’s just no research backing this up. And they are using them in much higher amounts than before.”
Several police departments The Times reached out to denied using tear gas. But authorities said that substances like “chemical irritants,” “chemical agents” or “pepper balls” were deployed. Semantic murkiness does not typically matter to those who study and monitor tear gas use. To them CS (actually a powder) and a variety of pepper-derived compounds qualify as tear gas.
Police departments are deploying riot control agents without knowing their full effects on people who come in contact with them.
“There’s very little oversight about what police departments are purchasing, how they are planning to deploy,” Dr. Jordt said. He added that the police get tear gas training from manufacturers, leading them to treat it as a primary means of crowd control.
“I think this really changes their mindset, that it becomes a first-line item to deploy against protesters, not a last resort,” he said. “I’m very concerned that this gets normalized.”