U of M research finds police non-lethal projectiles cause lasting injury

Photo by Nur-D Volunteer medics attend to a bystander shot in the face by a police projectile during the George Floyd protests in June 2020.

Serious injuries were sustained during George Floyd protests

Though advertised as less lethal, rubber bullets and other projectiles used by law enforcement against rally-goers during the George Floyd protests last year proved to be very injurious and violated United Nations (UN) use of non-lethal force guidelines, a University of Minnesota study has concluded.

After Floyd was apparently murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, people took to the streets demanding that Chauvin and the three other officers who assisted him be prosecuted. Protests—some peaceful, some not so peaceful—were met at times by police firing rubber bullets and bean bags at participants. Tear gas canisters were also fired at protesters, causing injury to those who were hit.

University of Minnesota Medical School student Erika Kaske, who helped lead the research, noted that they noticed an uptick in injuries from those who had participated in protests. “We noticed a boy who required surgery from a rubber bullet, and we decided to do a systematic review to see if there was a pattern,” said Kaske.

“We were surprised to find the number of injuries, and this was especially alarming because the system was already overwhelmed with COVID patients at the time,” said Kaske. “The majority of injuries were from projectiles, 40% above the neck. UN guidelines say they are potentially unlawful.”

The research reveals that non-lethal projectiles caused injury and that police aimed many of these less lethal weapons above the neck in violation of UN protocols, in many cases causing permanent damage.

The study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was conducted between May 26 and June 15, 2020 by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and Hennepin County Medical Center. The researchers examined those who underwent medical treatment for injuries during that time at North Memorial Hospital, Hennepin Healthcare Hospital, and other Twin Cities clinics that had the words “riot, rubber bullets, tear gas, protest or projectile” in their medical chart.

The report states:

“Of the 6,626 medical records identified during the initial search, 89 met the study criteria, with 45 (51%) indicating injuries from projectiles, 32 (36%) injuries from chemical irritants, and 12 (13%) injuries from both types of weapons. Patients reported 41 injuries from rubber bullets, 7 from tear gas canisters, 2 from beanbags, and 7 from unknown projectiles. Ten patients (11%) sustained eye trauma from projectiles. Seven patients (8%) underwent surgery for their injuries, and 16 patients (18%) had received traumatic brain injuries. A substantial percentage of projectile injuries were to the head, neck, or face (in 23 of 57 patients [40%]).

“Although the results represent only a single region in a worldwide protest, these findings reveal that under current practices, projectiles are not appropriate for crowd control,” the study concluded.

Researcher Dr. Rachael Hardeman of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health said that while it is often not viewed as such, public safety is also a public health issue and their study confirms it.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of the UN guidelines,” said Hardeman. “We are talking about people protesting a public health issue [police violence] who are then confronted with harm. Hardeman noted the paradox, “there are people wanting to speak out against injustice and having to face this kind of injustice in doing that,” she said.

Photo courtesy of U of M School of Public Health Dr. Rachel Hardeman

UN guidelines

The UN guidelines are clear on how and when force should be used and discourage even the use of non-lethal force in order to secure compliance or to punish those passively resisting. The guidelines are also clear on the use of force against non-participants.

“At all times, law enforcement officials should consider and minimize the possible incidental impact of their use of force on bystanders, passers-by, medical personnel and journalists. They shall not direct force against such persons,” according to the guidelines.

Journalists, bystanders, medics targeted

While the assumption by many is that police were forced to use force to control unruly crowds during the summer of protest against police violence, there is evidence to suggest that police targeted those protesting peacefully and even went out of their way to harass and fire projectiles at the press, medics, videographers and even legal observers.

And on a few occasions it was reported that bystanders and even children were targeted.

The Minnesota ACLU in a lawsuit filed on behalf of freelance journalist Jared Goyette in June 2020 alleged that “the Minneapolis Police and the Minnesota State Patrol tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, shot in the face with rubber bullets, arrested without cause, and threatened journalists at gunpoint, after these journalists identified themselves and were otherwise clearly engaged in their reporting duties.”

At a rally outside the Minneapolis Third Precinct on May 27 days after George Floyd was killed by police Ali Hussein an amateur Youtube videographer was targeted by police. He was walking away from the rally after filming when he was hit in the head by a projectile fired by a cop perched on the roof of the precinct. He wound up in the hospital with a concussion and a hairline fracture of his skull.

Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer and activist from Nashville who was hit in the eye by a bullet-shaped projectile while covering the street protests in Minneapolis on May 29, has been permanently blinded.

NBC reporter Ed Ou was photographed with blood streaming down his face after police shot him in the head with a projectile while taking pictures of a protest demanding justice for George Floyd in late May of 2020.

Human Rights Watch highlights reported last year that medics were also singled out by police. Medics in Portland reported being fired on and harassed on a constant basis during protests there last summer.  In Minneapolis during the George Floyd protests police reportedly fired paint pellets at personnel and tore down medical tents and destroyed supplies.

Last June, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), the country’s leading professional organization of eye doctors, issued a response to the reports of police shooting out people’s eyes during protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder. In a statement they called on law enforcement officials to immediately stop using rubber bullets to control or disperse crowds of protesters. They also went on record asking physicians, public health officials, and the public to condemn the practice.

“Americans have the right to speak and congregate publicly and should be able to exercise that right without the fear of blindness,” the AAO wrote. “You shouldn’t have to choose between your vision and your voice.”

Submitted photo Erika Kaske U of M med student researcher

Previous research

A study published in 2017 in BMJ Open, a peer-reviewed open access medical journal authored by  It examined death, injury and disability from “kinetic impact projectiles” – a catch-all phrase for various types of less lethal munitions including rubber bullets – used in crowd control settings across the globe.

The study examined cases involving 1,984 people who had sought medical care after being hit. It found 3% died and 15% were permanently injured.

The study concluded that: “Kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs), often called rubber or plastic bullets, are used commonly in crowd-control settings. We find that these projectiles have caused significant morbidity and mortality during the past 27 years, much of it from penetrative injuries and head, neck and torso trauma. 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. There is an urgent need to establish international guidelines on the use of crowd-control weapons to prevent unnecessary injuries and deaths.”

UN urges accountability

Under international human rights law and international principles on the use of force, States are under an obligation to ensure that law enforcement officials are held accountable for their actions, including any decision to use force. As law enforcement officials are required to protect the public, in certain circumstances, States are also obliged to hold them accountable for omissions. To ensure effective accountability, law enforcement agencies shall establish sufficiently independent and effective internal accountability mechanisms, and States should consider the establishment of an adequately resourced external oversight body

“Our goal is to create the evidence for the need for change,” explained Kaske. “These findings are valid; they are significant.

“The first step in holding the system accountable is reliable information. Beyond collecting the data, we can advocate for our patients.” Kaske pointed out that the medical field has been for too long conservative and that it should now seek to look beyond its call to first do no harm and also seek to lessen the harm caused by police violence.

“This research is an important first step in unpacking what it means to create public safety, especially when people are out voicing their opinion about public safety,” said Hardeman.