Two Richmond City Council members said Tuesday they will seek to prohibit police from using tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades in the city.
Michael Jones, the 9th District representative, and Stephanie Lynch, the 5th District representative, said they aim to introduce an ordinance on July 1 banning the weapons police have used repeatedly during Black Lives Matters protests over the last 26 days.
“They are tear gassing innocent civilians,” Jones said. “There are other ways to de-escalate a crowd.”
The demonstrations, sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, have produced frequent clashes between officers and protesters in Richmond over the past 3½ weeks. Tear gas has been a hallmark of many of those incidents, with officers launching canisters to break up crowds, enforce a curfew officials established or disperse unlawful assemblies police declared.
In the most high-profile incident so far, Richmond Police gassed a crowd of protesters gathered at the Robert E. Lee Monument in early June. The department initially defended the show of force with a publicly issued lie before later apologizing. The incident prompted a class-action lawsuit.
Police have not shelved the tactic. As they broke up a gathering outside of City Hall in the early hours of Tuesday morning, clouds of the gas hung so densely in the air that you could not see from one end of a block to the other, according to reporting from The Commonwealth Times.
Jones, Lynch and protesters say the gas and other weapons have escalated already high tensions at demonstrations focused on police brutality. In some instances, protesters have said police did not issue warnings before launching the gas or pepper spraying demonstrators, or that they resorted to the use of force with little or no provocation.
Police have defended their tactics, saying they have deployed tear gas and other “less lethal” weapons to counter projectiles protesters have thrown at them or other instances of law-breaking officers said they observed.
Richmond police charged a dozen people with unlawful assembly early Tuesday. One person also was served with a pending embezzlement charge and another was charged with four counts of assaulting a police officer.
A spokesman for the Richmond Police Department did not immediately respond to a request Tuesday afternoon for the number of times its officers have deployed tear gas, shot “less lethal” bullets or used flash-bang grenades over the last month.
A Freedom of Information Act request for the department’s spending on the weapons is pending.
Jimmie Lee Jarvis said he has lost track of the number of times he has experienced tear gas and pepper spray while taking part in the protests.
“At some point, your mask gets so soaked with the gas, with the chemicals, you have to take it off and get a clean one,” he said. “You can’t breathe.”
Others Jarvis has protested alongside have fared worse. He said he has seen people on the ground, crying and vomiting, debilitated by the gas. Street medics that aid the marchers have stepped in to help, putting themselves at risk of exposure.
Banned from use in warfare, international law permits the use of tear gas for “domestic riot control purposes,” under the Chemical Weapons Agreement that took effect in 1997. Some cities have suspended its use since protests began last month. A federal judge in Denver issued a temporary restraining order preventing its use there.
Exposure to the gas in large quantities can lead to long-term health issues or respiratory failure that could result in death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, continued use of chemical irritants could fuel spread of the virus, five local doctors wrote in a letter to the Richmond Police department shared on social media Tuesday.
In an exchange during an electronic meeting of the City Council on Monday, Jones asked Mayor Levar Stoney whether he would support “an immediate ban” on tear gas and other weapons.
“Any use of those tactics should be the final — it should be the last resort, the last resort only,” Stoney said.
Lynch, who alongside Jones was gassed while observing protests last week, said the weapons are inhumane. To her, their continued use will not ameliorate the situation, but instead, make matters worse.
“It’s seeming to have the opposite impact, and it’s seeming to incite more anger, not only for the protesters who are there, but for the community at large,” she said.