(Warning: The images and footage in the following article shows police violence against protesters and is graphic in nature)
Two Austin men were hospitalized over the weekend, one in critical condition, after being struck with less-lethal munitions—projectiles designed to cause pain but not lethal injury (they can cause both)—fired by APD officers. In another widely-shared incident, a pregnant woman is seen doubled-over in pain after being shot in the abdomen with a less-lethal round while protesting outside APD headquarters. APD Chief Brian Manley responded to these three incidents saying that he was “crushed,” but also that the force used against protesters was “within policy.”
Manley is referring to the APD policy manual, which lays out the criteria for the use of less-lethal weapons—which the manual dubs “kinetic energy projectiles”—in section 206.5. This section, specifically section 206.5.3, outlines several considerations officers should take into account when determining whether to deploy kinetic energy projectiles.
The department’s criteria take the form of vague standards instead of rules with specific metrics and give officers significant leeway in their determinations. However, other entities, such as the United Nation Human Rights council and the less-lethal weapons manufacturers themselves, have produced guidelines that offer more specific and detailed considerations for the use of such projectiles. APD officers have clearly violated these guidelines and manufacturer recommendations and, arguably, have violated their own policy manual in all but the most permissive interpretation of the document.
Fire from Above
One of the criteria that APD officers must consider when determining whether to deploy kinetic energy projectiles is the “distance and angle to target” (sec. 206.5.3(e) of the APD policy manual). Every kinetic energy projectile has a minimum and maximum distance for safe use and shooting down at protesters from an elevated angle increases the risk of serious injury.
Images on social media show the I-35 bridge near the APD headquarters parapeted by APD officers armed with riot control shotguns—weapons modified to shoot less-lethal projectiles—looking down on the protesters (pictured below).
In front of the APD headquarters, officers formed rank on the stairs overlooking the protesters below, with a line of officers standing nearly a full body’s length above the crowd (picture on the left below).
In both instances, the discharge of kinetic impact projectiles from these elevated positions increased the likelihood of serious injury to protesters, one of the specific risks addressed in the United Nations Human Rights guidance on using less-lethal weapons.
According to the document, “the firing of kinetic impact projectiles from… an elevated position… is likely to increase the risk of striking protesters in the head.” Impacts to the head from these projectiles, the document notes, “may result in skull fracture and brain injury, damage to the eyes, including permanent blindness, and even death.” The APD manual also notes that the “head and neck should not be intentionally targeted.”
Despite such guidance, APD officers repeatedly fired kinetic impact projectiles from elevated positions, including, reportedly, in the instance that placed one protester in critical condition.
In the incident, captured below (warning: footage is graphic), a black protester was shot in the back of the head with a less-lethal round. The victim was shot accidentally after a nearby protester reportedly threw a water bottle at the police officers on top of the I-35 bridge. According to Chief Manley, one officer was struck and an officer (unclear whether it was the same officer) “fired their less-lethal munition at [the individual who threw the water bottle], apparently, but it struck this [20-year-old] victim instead.”
The APD policy manual requires that the officers consider the distance to target in light of the type of munition being deployed. According to a witness interviewed by KUVE, an APD officer stationed on the I-35 bridge deployed a 12-gauge bean bag round against the 20-year-old victim (the projectile itself is lying on the street to the right of the bloodstains at time code 0:29 of the twitter video above). Protesters in the video can also be seen turning to face the bridge as the shots ring out, reinforcing the idea that the shots came from officers atop the bridge across the street and not from the officers stationed on the steps of the headquarters.
Defense Technologies, the manufacturer of the bean bag rounds used by APD (as shown in the KXAN video here), provides a recommended effective range for its rounds of “approximately 20 to 50 feet” to ensure accurate shot placement, with a maximum effective range of 75 feet.
In the video showing the incident, the victim appears to have been hit while standing on the corner of E. 8th street and the I-35 feeder road on the side nearest the APD headquarters. The horizontal distance from this position to the I-35 Bridge where the officers were stationed is at least 90 feet (as measured by the author). This is well outside the 20-50 foot effective range recommended by the manufacturer of the bean bag round used and is even outside its maximum effective range of 75 feet. Based on this distance, an APD officer stationed on the I-35 Bridge would not have been able to deliver an accurate shot using a bean bag round—a conclusion supported by the fact that the officer was aiming for another protester when he critically wounded this man.
“Within Policy,” Really?
The APD policy manual does not specify the exact distances and angles appropriate for the use of kinetic energy projectiles, such as bean bags. However, it does require that an officer consider both the distance and angle to their target and the type of projectile being deployed. Clearly, the distance should be appropriate to the type of projectile being used and the angle of discharge should minimize the risk of serious injury.
While APD Chief Brian Manley concluded that the use of force was “within policy,” only a maximally permissive interpretation of the APD policy manual could give rise to this conclusion. A more reasonable interpretation is that the use of bean bag rounds against this specific protester, and against other protesters in the area, was reckless and unsafe with regards to both the distance and angle to their target and violated the APD’s own policy manual. The most reasonable interpretation, however, is that police officers should never use potentially lethal force against peaceful protesters.