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Oakland Protest Settlement Restricts “Less Lethal” Munitions

Federal court injunction stops police from using impact munitions, explosive grenades at most demonstrations and crowd events

Oakland and Alameda County will pay $250,000 to two people injured at 2020 protest

Officer with less lethal launcher, cloud of teargas at 8th & Broadway on June 1, 2022

The City of Oakland and Alameda County have agreed to a permanent injunction restricting law enforcement use of “less lethal” munitions at demonstrations and other crowd events. The City and County will jointly pay $250,000 to two people who Alameda County Sheriff Deputies shot with munitions during a June 1, 2020, demonstration over the police murder of George Floyd. The case is Brown v. City of Oakland, et al., U.S. District Court Case No. 3:21-cv-02881.

In three prior federal court settlements, Oakland promised not to use “rubber bullets”, “bean bags” and other impact munitions, also known as Specialty Impact Munitions and Kinetic Energy Projectiles, for crowd control. Their use was confined to situations presenting an immediate danger of death or great bodily injury. However, in May – June 2020, when thousands took to Oakland streets to express outrage over the police murder of George Floyd, OPD commanders allowed Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) deputies to bring and use impact munitions and explosive grenades on peaceful crowds.

When ACSO and OPD officers began teargassing the demonstrators, Plaintiff Tosh Sears turned to leave — only to be shot in the hip by an ACSO deputy. Plaintiff Kierra Brown was helping people who had been teargassed wash their eyes, when police suddenly charged at her. When she tried to run in the direction the officers seemed to indicate, an ACSO deputy shot her in the calf. This came in the context of widespread police violence toward Floyd protesters that has generated dozens of lawsuits all over the country.

“Nothing will erase the emotional pain and terror I felt on June 1, 2020. I felt like a target in my own city, at the hands of people who are supposed to protect me,” said Mr. Sears, a 52 year old UPS driver. “I grew up with family members who were police officers, including my grandfather who was the first Black police officer in Las Vegas. But now I just don’t feel safe around police as a Black man. I’m hoping this settlement is a small part of achieving some real change.”

“This was a terrifying experience,” agreed Ms. Brown, a 22 year old legal worker. “Just seeing the way that the officers treated unarmed, innocent people was deeply painful. And that fear has never left me. I am pleased that this settlement will not only help Tosh and me, but will help the Oakland community to be able to continue to speak out against racism and police violence.”

As part of the settlement, OPD will address the situation in which impact munitions are most typically used, in conjunction with teargas. “When officers shoot impact munitions into crowds, even if purportedly to stop people from throwing spent teargas canisters back toward the police, it causes panic, chaos, and injuries which can be severe,” explained civil rights attorney R. Michael Flynn. “The injunction requires OPD to clarify in its policy and training that the mere fact that an individual is picking up or throwing a chemical agent canister or other object does not automatically justify shooting at them. Even if someone does pose a grave danger, the injunction prohibits police from shooting into a crowd, especially when people are running from teargas. Under the settlement agreement and AB48, the police must try de-escalation, and they must give adequate notice and opportunity to leave before resorting to munitions.”

“After OPD shot more than 50 people with so-called less lethal munitions during an antiwar picket in 2003, we sat down and hammered out a crowd control policy in which Oakland agreed not to use these munitions for crowd control,” said lead attorney Rachel Lederman. “But every time there’s a resurgence of large demonstrations, OPD violates that agreement. In this case, they let mutual aid do their dirty work by bringing and using dangerous weapons on Oakland demonstrators. We hope we’ve finally closed that loophole, as this agreement involves both the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office. The federal court will maintain jurisdiction for five years to enforce the injunction. No one should risk devastating injuries to protest for social justice.”

The injunction also prohibits OPD and ACSO from using shotgun-fired munitions such as lead-filled “beanbags” in crowds. It extends the extensive restrictions on use of impact munitions and teargas imposed by AB 48 to the flashbang-like explosive grenades that both agencies use, and prohibits these from being tossed into crowds, where they can cause hearing loss and chemical burns. And both the City and the County agreed that these restrictions will be applicable to all crowd events, not only political demonstrations.

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