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Fractured Skulls, Lost Eyes: Police Often Break Own Rules Using ‘Rubber Bullets’


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Fractured Skulls, Lost Eyes: Police Often Break Own Rules Using ‘Rubber Bullets’

Megan Matthews thought she was dying.

“I thought my head was blown off,” said Matthews, 22, who was hit in the eye with a sponge-tipped projectile fired by law enforcement at a May 29 protest in Denver. “Everything was dark. I couldn’t see.”

Matthews, a soft-spoken art major who lives with her mother, had gone to the demonstration against police brutality carrying bandages, water bottles and milk so she could provide first aid to protesters.

“I couldn’t really grasp how bad my injury was,” said Matthews, who sustained injuries including a broken nose, fractured facial bones and multiple lacerations on her face. “So much blood was pouring out. I was wearing a mask, and the whole mask was filling up with blood. I was trying to breathe through it. I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t stop breathing.’”

Three weeks later, Matthew is struggling with her vision and her doctor says she may never completely heal. Others fared far worse.
Megan Matthews was hit in the eye with a sponge-tipped projectile at a May 29 protest in Denver. She sustained injuries including a broken nose, fractured facial bones and multiple lacerations on her face.(Courtesy of Megan Matthews)

In a joint investigation into law enforcement actions at protests across the country after George Floyd’s death in police custody, KHN and USA TODAY found that some officers appear to have violated their department’s own rules when they fired “less lethal” projectiles at protesters who were for the most part peacefully assembled.

Critics have assailed those tactics as civil rights and First Amendment violations, and three federal judges have ordered temporary restrictions on their use.

At least 60 protesters sustained serious head injuries, including a broken jaw, traumatic brain injuries and blindness, based on news reports, interviews with victims and witnesses and a list compiled by Scott Reynhout, a Los Angeles researcher.

Photos and videos posted on social media show protesters with large bruises or deep gashes on the throat, hands, arms, legs, chest, rib cage and stomach, all caused by what law enforcement calls “kinetic impact projectiles” and bystanders call “rubber bullets.”
At least 20 people have suffered severe eye injuries, including seven people who lost an eye, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Photographer Linda Tirado, 37, lost an eye after being hit by a foam projectile in Minneapolis. Brandon Saenz, 26, lost an eye and several teeth after being hit with a “sponge round” in Dallas. Leslie Furcron, 59, was placed in a medically induced coma after she was shot between the eyes with a “bean bag” round in La Mesa, California.

Derrick Sanderlin with his wife, Cayla Sanderlin. Derrick, who had trained San Jose police recruits on avoiding racial bias, was hit by a projectile that ruptured a testicle.(Courtesy of the Sanderlin family)

Twenty-seven-year-old Derrick Sanderlin helped defuse a confrontation at a protest in San Jose, California, on May 29. While he was trying to protect a young woman from police, he was hit with a projectile that ruptured a testicle and, his doctor said, may leave him infertile.

With terms like “foam,” “sponge” and “bean bag,” the projectiles may sound harmless. They’re not.

“On day one of training, they tell you, ‘Don’t shoot anywhere near the head or neck,’” said Charlie Mesloh, a certified instructor on the use of police projectiles and a professor at Northern Michigan University. “That’s considered deadly force.”

Floyd’s death sparked the nation’s most widespread street protests in decades, drawing a massive response from police dressed in riot gear. Although many large metropolitan police departments own these projectiles, they had never before been used on a national scale, Mesloh said.

Witnesses say law enforcement in several major cities used less-lethal projectiles against nonviolent protesters, shot into crowds, aimed at faces and fired at close range — each of which can run counter to policies.

Police have said they fired these weapons to protect themselves and property in chaotic, dangerous scenes.
These projectiles, intended to incapacitate violent aggressors without killing them,  have evolved from the rubber bullets developed in the 1970s by the British military to quell uprisings in Northern Ireland. They are designed to travel more slowly than bullets, with blunt tips meant to cause pain but not intended to penetrate the body.