Featured photo: Remnants of a pepper bullet lodged in the Egerton Law offices building

Despite the Greensboro police department’s lack of certainty on whether or not pepper bullets or tear gas were deployed against protesters over the weekend, several pieces of evidence found by Triad City Beat and others show that both were used on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

On Monday and Wednesday afternoons TCB found multiple broken as well as whole pepper bullet casings on Washington Street, Lewis Street near the railroad tracks and in the Egerton Law offices parking lot in downtown Greensboro. On Wednesday afternoon, TCB found a used tear-gas canister discarded in the trash bin in the Egerton Law offices parking lot. Part of a used tear gas canister was also found fused to a drain grate in front of the law office’s building. The two pieces that were found may have been part of the same device.

The pepper bullets, also called “PepperBall Projectiles” in the police department’s directives manual, are brittle plastic, red spheres filled with “chemical irritants” that are launched from “high-pressure air launchers that deliver the projectiles with enough force to burst the projectiles on impact, releasing the irritant.”

Although the spheres are “classified as a less-lethal device,” the department’s manual states that the potential exists for the pepper bullet projectiles to inflict injury when they strike the face, eyes, neck, and groin.” In two separate instances in 2004, the use of projectiles like the pepper balls used over the weekend in Greensboro, caused one death in Boston and damage to an unarmed student’s eye at the UC Davis.

In a statement on Monday, Ron Glenn, the public information officer for the Greensboro Police Department, said the police had only used pepper spray and not pepper bullets or tear gas on Saturday evening. He said that he was not sure about Sunday evening.

“I know it’s generally used when you need to disperse a crowd,” Glenn said in a phone interview. “Like when people start throwing rocks at police and there’s usually large crowds of police.”

In a follow up email on Wednesday, Glenn responded that the department is “still in the process of conducting follow up to the events of this past weekend.”

“I am not aware of pepper spray pellets being used but that is one of the methods we utilize to dispense pepper spray and the reasons for the use remains the same,” he said. “Individuals were throwing rocks and objects at officers and pepper spray was used to disperse the groups of people throwing those objects. Officers that utilize pepper spray tools specifically related to crowd control are going to be trained in the use of those tools.”

On Saturday evening, Brian Clarey reported smelling and feeling either tear gas or pepper spray in the air while he was livestreaming downtown. On Sunday, Deonna Kelli Sayed said that a tear-gas canister was deployed just around midnight on Elm Street as shopkeepers cleaned up glass in front of their stores.

Remnants of pepper bullets found on Washington Street and near the train tracks in downtown Greensboro. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“Businesses owners were on the street sweeping up,” Sayed said in an interview. “Then, the line of riot police deployed a tear-gas canister and everyone started running. One protestor yelled at the cops in the car, saying, ‘Why are you doing that? Businesses owners have arrived and they are trying to clean up!’ I could smell/taste the tear gas on Elm. At that time, no one was in the street and no one was even heckling them. Really, things were winding down and people were just hanging out. It seemed like a silly way to defuse the situation.”

In a contrasting account, Mayor Nancy Vaughan said in a phone interview on Wednesday that tear gas was deployed when protesters threw rocks picked up from the train tracks at police to disperse the crowd.

At least two protesters say they were hit with pepper bullets on Sunday.

Payton, who only wanted to use his first name for privacy’s sake, was attending the protest on Sunday evening and walking near Sternberger Place and the Egerton Law office when he says police projected at least three cans of tear gas and then started shooting the pepper bullets.

“They sounded like the thud of a paintball gun firing,” he said. “I felt the sting of several bullets as they grazed my shoulders and hips and took several of them to my backpack. My friends and I ran and started delivering aid to those who had been gassed and shot in the area, and then made our way back down Elm Street which had been vandalized after the crowd was dispersed with the gas and pepper bullets. Based on my observations, most of the damage on Friendly and Elm was sustained after the cops used force.”

Two of Payton’s friends sustained impact bruises from the pepper bullets.

When using pepper bullet, the police directives manual states that “if a suspect is exposed to just the irritant powder the officer will follow OC decontamination procedures” and “if the suspect is impacted with the pepper bullet round then they will be medically evaluated and taken to the hospital upon the suspects request or at the advice of the medical provider.”

Payton says that neither measures were taken by police on scene.

The department’s manual states that any time a use of force is shown by an officer, “immediate notification of the employee’s supervisor is required. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to make a thorough investigation of the incident and to forward a report as require.”

Glenn told TCB that use-of-force reports are not public record as they are part of employees’ personnel records. Glenn also confirmed that the police department has rubber bullets at their disposal, although he said they have not been used yet.

The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office assisted with policing protests over the course of the weekend but a department spokesperson said officers “did not use any force.”

On Monday evening, TCB did not notice any use of tear gas or pepper spray.

Map of locations where pepper bullet casings and tear gas canister were found.

Both agencies rely on state law to dictate whether to use force in certain situations. According to general statute 15A-401, officers are permitted to use force, but not deadly force, to prevent the escape of a criminal from custody or to arrest a person the officer reasonably believes has committed a crime. They can also use force to defend themselves from what they reasonably believe to be the use or imminent use of physical force while attempting to arrest someone or prevent their escape. Nothing in the general statute describes use of force to disperse large crowds.

The police department’s directives on use of force also states that officers may use force “when the officer reasonably believes the force is necessary” and “to the extent the officer reasonably believes the force is necessary.”

Glenn told TCB on Wednesday that he is not sure if there is written protocol for use of force during crowd control situations. He said that while all officers that were downtown during the weekend were trained in crowd control, that he’s not sure if there is a directive specifically about use of force in these situations.

In protests across the country, police have been seen using various kinds of weapons including tear gas, pepper spray, pepper bullets and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often times unprovoked.

***

Five hours away, on Monday afternoon, Washington DC park police and national guard officers deployed tear gas and shot rubber bullets to forcefully disperse peaceful protesters so President Trump could take a photo in front of a church. One day prior, Gov. Roy Cooper authorized the mobilization of 450 National Guard troops to Charlotte, Raleigh and potentially other North Carolina cities.

“Guard personnel assigned to these missions are trained, equipped and prepared to assist law enforcement authorities and first responders,” said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, in a press release. “We’re here to help and assist local authorities,” he said. “Our troops are here to protect life and property, and preserve peace, order and public safety.”

In a phone call on Wednesday, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that they declined the deployment of National Guard troops to the city.

In Charlotte on Tuesday evening, Queen City Nerve’s publisher Justin LaFrancois captured live footage of police corralling peaceful protesters and then tear gassing them and using flash grenades. LaFrancois, who was in the middle of the attack, repeatedly said in his stream that his eyes and skin were burning.

“I don’t understand what just happened,” he says in the video.

Shortly after LaFrancois’s stream, the Charlotte police department released a statement on Twitter that they were “internally reviewing the circumstances that developed this evening on 4th Street to ensure policy and protocol were followed.”

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