John Carpenter represented William Gonzalez, whose eye “exploded” when he was struck with a hard-foam police projectile as he celebrated the Lakers’ NBA title.

Los Angeles Times
By Kevin Rector
October 20, 2020

A growing number of California lawmakers, medical experts and criminal justice reform advocates are calling for stricter limits on the use of hard-foam projectiles by law enforcement after Los Angeles police officers seriously  wounded several men following the recent Lakers’ NBA title victory.

The latest injuries — which included one man losing eight teeth and another who said he was blinded in one eye — follow others suffered by protesters in L.A. and across the country this summer, and show once more the dangers presented by such weapons, the critics said.

Some want a total ban. Others want to see reduced use and better mechanisms for tracking the impacts.

Police officials, meanwhile, defended their use of the weapons but said they are trying to minimize it. L.A. Police Department Chief Michel Moore said Tuesday that he is rushing to order shields for officers so that they have another tool to defend themselves against increasingly violent threats from demonstrators.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who sponsored an unsuccessful bill to regulate the weapons during the legislative session that ended in August, said she will reintroduce her bill next year after seeing images of the wounds sustained by people at the Lakers celebration gathering Oct. 11.

“It’s clear they are being used inappropriately,” Gonzalez said of the weapons.

Dr. Rohini Haar, an emergency room doctor and adjunct professor at UC Berkeley who has researched the use of such weapons nationally with the organization Physicians for Human Rights, said there is no question they cause devastating injuries, are routinely misused by police and should be better tracked — as would be required by Gonzalez’s bill.

“You don’t need more research to say that these weapons are dangerous and overused,” Haar said.

Kent Mendoza, a criminal justice reform advocate and community activist who works to reduce recidivism, said he was shot himself with a projectile after the Lakers game, suffering a serious injury to his wrist.

He said he was standing on a sidewalk near a burger shop when a man nearby lobbed a 2-gallon jug of water in the general direction of officers in riot gear — not coming close to hitting them — and the officers opened fire on the crowd, which included children who hid behind benches.

“The police need to stop using all these militarized weapons in our community, because it’s not about public safety,” said Mendoza, 27, who works with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. “This is literally making people like me and people in my community not want to work with police anymore.”

The calls for change come days after an advisory panel convened by Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that the use of such weapons can kill people and “escalate conflict” on the ground and should only be used “as a last resort to protect life and repel assaults when other means have been exhausted.”

They also follow a summer of unrest that put a spotlight on police crowd-control tactics generally and their use of projectiles specifically, as protesters calling for an end to police brutality were wounded — along with legal observers and journalists — in cities across the country.

The LAPD is currently being sued by Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles and others over its use of projectiles on protesters this summer, with the plaintiffs arguing that officers on the ground ignored rules for the weapons that the LAPD agreed to after previous litigation over their use.

The department’s policy says officers may fire such weapons only at targeted individuals who represent a threat, not into crowds or at people who are fleeing, and cannot aim them at people’s heads or necks.

However, videos from protests have shown officers appearing to violate those policies by firing at people who appeared to present no threat to officers. The Times has documented several injuries to people’s eyes and heads.

LAPD officials have defended their use of the weapons this year as necessary to disperse crowds that had turned violent and destructive and had been deemed “unlawful” by police. They said officers used the weapons only after individuals threw items at officers and began destroying property. Eight officers were injured after the Lakers’ win, dozens during the protests.

Craig Lally, president of the union that represents LAPD officers, said taking projectile weapons away from police would be “dangerous and wrong.”

“Dangerous mobs and individuals who are blending in with peaceful demonstrators have shot officers, thrown bricks, rocks, and frozen water bottles at them and even launched fireworks and pointed lasers at them hoping to cause harm,” Lally said.

On Tuesday, members of the Police Commission said they were tracking the reports of serious injuries caused by the weapons, and would await more information from the department. Commission President Eileen Decker said the weapons seemed to “cause significant damage,” and asked what sort of internal evaluation was occurring to determine “whether they cause an excessive amount of damage for what the department is seeking to do.”

Moore said each instance in which the use of such weapons hospitalizes someone is subjected to a full investigation. He also defended the weapons as a necessary tool as demonstrators become increasingly violent in the city, throwing pyrotechnics and commercial fireworks at officers that can cause serious injuries. He said it is “unfortunate” that officers need shields, but the increased threats warrant them.

The LAPD previously said its projectiles hospitalized at least three people after the Lakers’ game — including the man who lost teeth and the man who was blinded in one eye. On Tuesday, Moore told the commission that police now believe the man struck in the eye might have been hit with a bottle.

Asked what information gave rise to the latter belief, a police spokesman said California Highway Patrol officers whom the wounded man spoke to as he sought help at the scene told LAPD investigators that he told them that he believed he’d been hit with a bottle. The spokesman, Josh Rubenstein, said no video of the incident had been found as of Tuesday.

The man, William Gonzalez, 22, told The Times he was struck just as he heard police start firing their weapons, and believed he was struck by a police projectile. His brother Michael said they were begging CHP officers for help even as they pushed the pair back with batons. The eye surgeons who operated on Gonzalez said his injuries were consistent with his being struck by a projectile.

John Carpenter, an attorney for Gonzalez, maintained Tuesday that his client was hit with a police projectile, and criticized Moore for suggesting otherwise based on CHP “hearsay,” without “taking the time to figure out the truth of what actually happened.”

Police critics said more must be done to hold LAPD officers to the standards for projectiles already set out for them, and a statewide standard with better mechanisms for tracking the weapons’ use would help ensure that while also reforming other agencies.

Gonzalez’s bill — which died on the Senate floor at the end of a chaotic session upended by the COVID-19 pandemic — would ban police across the state from using projectiles at protests and other large gatherings, except in instances where officers are targeting specific individuals “engaged in violent acts.” It would make it illegal for police to use the weapons on people “solely due to a violation of an imposed curfew, verbal threat, or noncompliance with a law enforcement directive.”

The bill would ban police from aiming projectiles at people’s heads and mandate that they help to ensure that anyone they injure with such weapons receives prompt medical care. It would also require police agencies to report all uses of such weapons to the California Department of Justice, along with a justification for their use.

Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), who helped write the bill last session, said she was ready to fight for it again.

Carrillo said there is confusion around how police use projectiles, in part because each agency has its own policies. That shouldn’t be the case, she said.