Police projectiles in question after two lose eyesight; at least 541 rounds used during May protest

Problem Solvers

DENVER (KDVR) — A FOX31 Problem Solvers investigation has determined police officers from seven tactical or crowd control teams used at least 541 “less lethal,” 40mm sponge grenade projectiles, which are made of hard, foam rubber tips, during the May 2020 protests in downtown Denver.

One agency that provided mutual aid to Denver, the Aurora Police Department, said its officers had 320 40mm projectiles during the protests. That accounts for nearly 60 percent of the total used by every agency with those weapons during the final days of May. However, some of Aurora’s projectiles may not have been launched by Aurora officers, according to the Aurora Police Department.

Lt. Christopher Amsler, an Aurora Police Department spokesperson, said the 320 projectiles Aurora used “does not mean that we shot 320 people or fired that many rounds. Rounds were lent out to other agencies and our officers were provided with additional rounds throughout the weekend that may have never been fired,” he told the Problem Solvers.

Amsler said he could not say how many rounds were fired by officers, and he could not say to which departments projectiles were loaned.

There is “currently an ongoing review of law enforcements (sic) response to the protests being conducted by the City of Denver,” said Amsler. “The (Denver) review is all encompassing and includes the agencies that responded to the Denver Police Department’s request for mutual aid. In order to not jeopardize the integrity of that review we will not be releasing any additional information or speaking about our response at this time.”

Several protesters or bystanders who suffered serious eye injuries during the final days of May said they believed police projectiles might be to blame.

“It was just kind of a sudden explosion in my face,” said Russell Strong, 35, who lost his eyeball.  Strong said he was peacefully holding a “No Justice No Peace” poster during the protest when he was struck and blinded in one eye.

>>’I was so scared. I was terrified’: 7 people with eye injuries after Denver protests describe their experiences

“Either we’re accepting that they have terrible aim, and it was an accident, and they’re not good at using their weapon, or we’re accepting that they are good at their weapon, and they’re aiming it at people’s faces,” Strong said.

Denver Police Department Investigation

A Denver Department of Public Safety spokesperson said Denver officers fired “approximately 90” 40mm projectiles during the final four days of May 2020.

“We do not provide tactical details such as the number of any particular type of weapon used in any particular setting. Further details on the DPD response to protest activities will be included in the forthcoming report from the Office of the Independent Monitor and we will not be proving (sic) any additional details until then,” said Kelli Christensen, the director of communications for the Department of Public Safety.

At the request of two Denver city council members, Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor is investigating Denver police actions and subsequent complaints during the spring protests.

The report will be released Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, during a Denver City Council committee meeting.

“I hope it uncovers the truth,” said Murphy Robinson, Denver’s executive director of public safety.  Robinson said he asked the police department to stop using the 40mm weapon – unless it is absolutely necessary – while the review is being completed.

“Any time there is an allegation of injury to anyone in our community – whether it’s visitors or residents – and whether they were causing harm or not…are of some concern,” he said.

Robinson said the review will help provide clarity on the best tools for the department and whether training or discipline practices should change.

“There was a lot happening during that time, and it’s not misplaced on me that there are some things that we can learn from and improve on, but we also have to realize our police officers were…placed in a very precarious position and had a very interesting thing they had to deal with, historic,” he said.

While being sued in federal court over police tactics during the protests, the City of Denver also agreed, in June, not to discharge less lethal projectiles in a manner that targets a person’s head, pelvis, or back and not to discharge the weapons “indiscriminately into a crowd.”

The City also agreed that the weapons would only be used if an on-scene supervisor would authorize the use of force in response to “specific acts of violence or destruction of property.” The police department also agreed that all officers deployed to demonstrations would record “any and all acts of confrontation between officers and others” on body-worn cameras.

According to Denver Police Department’s operations manual, 40mm launchers should only be used “to incapacitate, safely control, or take into custody an individual whose conduct rises to Active Aggression…as less lethal intervention to prevent an officer or a third person from being seriously injured or killed; or to incapacitate an individual who is threatening or attempting suicide.”

The manual also prohibits officers from aiming a less lethal weapon at someone’s “head, eyes, throat, neck, breasts of a female, genitalia, pelvis or spinal column.” The manual says aiming at someone’s back is prohibited when the weapons are being used during protests or riots.

Which tactical and crowd control teams deployed 40mm rounds

According to Jay Casillas, a technician in DPD’s media relations unit, the following police tactical teams “initially assisted” Denver in the early days of the protests:

Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, Aurora Police Department, Broomfield Police Department, Brighton Police Department/Commerce City Police Department (Combined Tactical Team), Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, JeffCo. Regional SWAT (JeffCo. Sheriff, Arvada Police Department, Golden Police Department), Lakewood Police Department, Wheat Ridge Police Department and Westminster Police Department.

The FOX31 Problem Solvers reached out to each team as well as to the Colorado State Police, Thornton Police Department, the Regional Transportation District Transit Police Division, the Colorado Rangers Law Enforcement Shared Reserve and the U.S. National Guard.

Only six of those mutual aid teams confirmed they were present on the days in question, May 28, 2020 – May 31, 2020, and utilized the 40mm sponge grenade weapon during the protests.

Here’s the breakdown of how each department – including Denver – reported deploying the weapon to FOX31:

Adams County Sheriff’s Office – deployed 2 total rounds on May 29, 2020 and May 30, 2020.

Douglas County Sheriff’s Office – deployed 5 total rounds on May 30, 2020 and May 31, 2020.

Commerce City/Brighton SWAT – deployed 10 total rounds on May 30, 2020 and May 31, 2020.

Colorado State Police Crowd Control Team – deployed 31 total rounds on May 28, 2020, May 29, 2020, May 30, 2020, and May 31, 2020.

JeffCo. Regional SWAT (JeffCo., Arvada PD, and Golden PD) – deployed 83 total rounds on May 29, 2020, and May 31, 2020.

Denver Police Department – deployed approximately 90 total rounds on May 28, 2020, May 29, 2020, May 30, 2020, and May 31, 2020.

Aurora Police Department – had 320 total rounds on May 30, 2020 and May 31, 2020 (according to Lt. Amsler, some rounds were not fired, and some were loaned to other departments but Amsler could not say to which departments).

“We did not keep a record of which agencies we gave 40mm foam rounds to. Nor do we have a count of how many rounds were given out,” said Amsler.

The Problem Solvers contacted each tactical and crowd control team to learn whether they received any projectiles from the Aurora Police Department during the May protests.

“Yes, in the midst of responding to protests/rioting in late May, APD did supply DPD with some 40mm sponge rounds,” said Doug Schepman, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department. 

Schepman told the FOX31 Problem Solvers, that he contacted a public information officer at the Aurora Police Department to confirm whether APD loaned any rounds to DPD. 

“While making several calls to find an answer to your original question, I also contacted APD PIO to see if they were familiar with the situation and they confirmed it…we do not have an accounting of the number of rounds obtained,” he said. Schepman also said one DPD officer who works in DPD Special Operations said he recalled other DPD officers obtaining rounds from APD.

However, Schepman could not give any more details on the arrangement or whether DPD received many projectiles or only a few.

All other mutual aid agencies that were present in Denver at the end of May said they did not receive any 40mm projectiles from the Aurora Police Department.

“Not that I’m aware of,” said Lauren Childress, a spokesperson for the Douglas County tactical team. 

Sergeant Adam Sherman, a spokesperson for Adams County Sheriff’s Office, said “They did not give or loan any to us.”

“We did not have any from them,” said Kimberly Ramsey, a spokesperson for the Colorado State Patrol.

“We did not receive any 40mm rounds from Aurora,” said Mike Taplin, a spokesperson for Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

“We were not loaned any 40mm sponge grenades or foam projectiles from Aurora PD,” said Jodi Hardee, the community relations manager for Commerce City/Brighton SWAT.

None of the agencies, except for Denver and Aurora, said they conducted an internal affairs investigation after the protests.

According to the Aurora Police Department, investigators reviewed surveillance video, news footage, and body-worn cameras from officers who attended the protest after hearing a statement from Strong, that police “’started firing into the crowd,’” said Officer Matthew Longshore, a spokesperson for Aurora PD.

“We took that statement into consideration when Mr. Strong said that he turned to run away from the police, and then something blew up in his face. This led us to a possible conclusion that Strong had been hit with something thrown by a fellow protester,” Longshore said in an email, summarizing the findings in an internal affairs investigation that was completed and closed as unfounded.

“After reviewing all of the video footage surrounding this event, investigators were unable to determine where, which agency, or who may have caused the damage to Mr. Strong,” he said in an email. “It should be noted that Aurora PD was instrumental in rescuing Russell (Strong) after he was hurt. Officers were notified of his injuries, formed a rescue team, and safely got Russell out of the crowd and over to medical personnel.”

“I’d hate to think that someone shot me in the face intentionally, but I don’t know,” said Strong.

Siddhartha Rathod, an attorney who represents Strong, said he recently met with the Denver District Attorney about Strong’s case. He said District Attorney Beth McCann declined to file any criminal charges because she could not prove who might have fired the shots that struck Strong’s eye.

“What we learned as part of our meeting with the district attorney’s office, is that Denver (PD) did not complete Use of Force reports, that Denver (PD) cannot tell the district attorney’s office how many rounds were fired by each officer,” said Rathod. “This is basic police accountability.”

Rathod said he learned that Aurora’s reports were very basic.

A spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Public Safety said officers did complete Use of Force Reports.

However, the FOX31 Problem Solvers’ request for those reports was denied.

“We are anticipating the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) will be releasing a report that examines all of the protest activity including use of force. Given this report may prompt the initiation of additional Internal Affairs cases and this Department’s interest in maintaining the integrity of the internal review process, your request for records is respectfully denied,” said Andrea Webber, the records administrator for the Denver Department of Public Safety.  

“As in any internal review, the public is owed a through and comprehensive review of the incident prior to any information being released publicly,” she said.

Despite the contradictory statements about Denver’s use of force reporting, a spokesperson for the Denver District Attorney’s office acknowledged that the DA would not be filing charges in the case involving Strong.

“DA McCann met with (Strong) and his attorney,” said Carolyn Tyler, a spokesperson for the Denver District Attorney’s office. “During that meeting, we explained that after several members of our office spent hours reviewing body worn camera and HALO video, we are unable to determine what hit Mr. Strong and caused his injury or which officer was involved.”

Tyler said both Denver police and Aurora officers were on scene during the incident. “Without knowing the answers to who or what hit Mr. Strong, there is simply not enough evidence for us to file a criminal case. DA McCann asked that I let you know her heart goes out to Mr. Strong as he suffered a devastating injury while peacefully protesting,” Tyler said.

National research and lawsuits point to severe injuries connected to projectiles

A medical paper produced by doctors at the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the University of California San Francisco discovered at least 30 patients suffered significant eye injuries in 13 different states and the District of Columbia during springtime protests around the country.

“The greatest number of injuries were reported in Colorado, but that probably indicates the responsiveness of the ophthalmologists to document these injuries,” said Dr. Flora Lum, the vice president of quality and data science for AAO, and one of the paper’s authors.

In seven of the 15 kinetic projectile injuries reviewed, Lum said, someone’s eye had to be removed because it could not be saved. Lum said in the study, a kinetic projectile was considered a rubber bullet, a foam bullet, a bean bag or a wooden round.

Researchers reviewed cases in Texas, Minnesota, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Oregon, Ohio, Missouri, Florida, Indiana, California, Washington D.C. and Colorado.

“Colorado was similar to the national profile, with the most common injury being a ruptured globe,” she said.

According to Dr. Tamara Fountain, the incoming president for the AAO, the organization is working with Congress to engage the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematics to study the health effects and injury impacts caused by kinetic impact projectiles. The group also launched the #notonemoreeye campaign in an effort to stop law enforcement from using certain weapons to disperse crowds during peaceful protests.

“Even if they weren’t blinded for the rest of their life, some of the damage to those delicate tissues on the inside of the eye could cause long term diseases that will eventually lead to decreased vision in the long term,” said Dr. Cristos Ifantides, the interim co-chief of ophthalmology at Denver Health.

Ifantides and his colleagues wrote two medical papers, sounding the alarm about the types of injuries they were seeing after caring for two patients who suffered blindness in an eye after the protests.

“It’s sad to have young people who are blinded,” he said. “Their lives will be changed forever, and I’m hoping that through advocacy and awareness, we can do better.”

Ifantides’ most recent research, conducted with medical colleagues and published in the Ophthalmology Journal of the American Medical Association on December 3, 2020, revealed the results of a national survey of academic ophthalmology programs across the country.

“What we asked was the occurrence of these eye injuries around the country, and we asked people if we thought they were related to these kinetic impact projectiles or less lethal weapons,” said Dr. Prem Subramanian, one of the researchers. “We didn’t ask if it was related to violent behavior or non-violent behavior on the parts of the people who were injured, but we did look across the country to see how frequently people were getting these eye injuries.

Subramanian said the research found at least 20 percent of the medical facilities that responded to the survey reported that they had treated at least one or more patients with eye injuries related to the use of less lethal projectiles during the springtime and summer protests.

“What was most disturbing to us, I think, was just how widespread this injury pattern was. It wasn’t just isolated to one or two cities.  We received 71 responses from around the country, and 16 programs stated that they had one or more people that had been injured while participating in these protests. So, that said to us that this was a wider spread problem than we thought it might be.”

Subramanian said he hopes the research helps bring awareness to these severe injuries and leads to improved police training or changed policies.

“We don’t think anyone wants to cause people to go blind when they are part of a protest, and we want law enforcement and others to learn from this that maybe some better training, some better policies, could help to prevent these kinds of injuries from happening in the future,” he said.”

Cliff Beem, an attorney who is working with Baumgartner Law to represent four victims of eye injuries – including two who were bystanders and not protesting – said he is taking legal action on behalf of his clients.

“The police did what amounted to a drive by shooting,” he said. “The only thing we can do is sue the municipalities and the police departments for money, and if they have to pay money because of what they’re doing, then eventually, they will change what they do because they don’t like to pay out,” he told the FOX31 Problem Solvers.

Another attorney, Andy McNulty, who represents another victim who was shot in the eye while wearing a gas mask, filed a suit in October.

“Denver’s actions, while unconstitutional in any context, are even more pernicious here because the police violence and brutality was specifically targeted at peaceful demonstrators protesting police violence and brutality,” he said.

“It’s still being reviewed,” said Murphy Robinson, Denver’s executive director of public safety.  “We are asking them to do (the investigation) right, not fast, and to make sure that this review is comprehensive enough for us to get information so we can utilize it, so we can make good decisions in the future.”

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