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Will Police Again Fire on Peaceful Protesters?

By Maria Rogers · May 31st, 2001 · Burning Questions
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Will Cincinnati Police officers restrain themselves Saturday, or will they treat the March for Justice like a shooting gallery?

The answer is so unclear that attorney Robert Newman last week asked a federal judge to issue an order protecting protesters from police. Newman sought a ban on the use of "non-lethal" ammunition against protesters.

He didn't get the court order, but the court hearing might have served a larger purpose by illustrating the very purpose of the march, namely to protest police violence.

Newman acted after police issued a press release in which Lt. Col. Richard Janke said police are armed and ready.

"The police division will have sufficient personnel to insure (sic) a safe environment and the division will use tools that have proven to be safe and effective," the press release said.

The use of some of the "tools" outlined in Janke's statement is unconstitutional "because it authorizes beanbags and foam rounds as preventative measures," Newman says.

Newman's concern is not mere speculation. He represents 30 people allegedly maced, shot with "beanbag" missiles, shot with rubber bullets, detained without reason and handcuffed and beaten with billy clubs by Cincinnati Police in protests since November. A federal grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department are investigating allegations of excessive force by Cincinnati Police.

So far no one has died in Cincinnati protests, but Newman says the ammunition police call "beanbags" and "foam rounds" can be deadly.

The beanbag is a two-ounce round of lead buckshot covered by cloth, Janke says. Both beanbags and foam rounds can kill, according to police documents.

"While these rounds have far less potential to be lethal than a standard firearm, they may be lethal even when properly used," according to the Cincinnati Police Division Manual of Rules and Regulations.

Janke says this is highly unlikely.

"There's never been a recordable experiment or incident where the beanbag penetrated a person or object," Janke testified. "I know of no incidents nationwide where the beanbag we used has caused death."

But the possibility exists, Janke admits.

"If a person is hit in the head or in the throat, there is a possibility of death," he said.

The police press release says officers may use "beanbag shotgun rounds and 40mm foam rounds anytime they encounter individuals actively resisting arrest or threatening harm to themselves or others." Janke says this includes various offenses such as criminal damaging, vandalism, throwing objects, arson, aggravated arson and assault.

But most of Newman's clients say they were engaged in peaceful protest when police attacked them. The rest of his clients say they were bystanders, not even participating in protests.

According to Janke, simple presence is officers' response to peaceful protests in which people stand still and do not block streets without a permit. Officers will try to talk with crowds before using force to clear a street.

"We exercise a high degree of patience," Janke says.

If, for example, an emergency vehicle needs to get through a blocked street, officers could use chemical irritant on a crowd if it refused to disperse, he says.

The use of beanbags on a crowd committing only misdemeanor traffic violations, such as blocking a street, would come only after chemical irritants failed, but police have not encountered that situation, Janke says.

Janke testified beanbags will not be used Saturday to prevent jaywalking or misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Newman says he'll hold police to that commitment.

Janke's press release says police use a chemical irritant -- orthochloribensalmalononitrile (CS) gas -- whose effect is mostly in protesters' imaginations.

"The effects of CS gas," the press release says, "are 75 percent psychological."

The effects of Janke's press release, according to Dan La Botz of the March for Justice Committee, are mostly political. Police are trying to intimidate people, he says.

"I think the clear purpose of the press release was to discourage people from coming," La Botz says. "We are not discouraged by it, and we believe many Cincinnatians will see through this."



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