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How American police gear up to respond to protests

By Sarah-Grace Mankarious and AJ Willingham
August 3, 2020

As the United States continues to see widespread protests, images of unrest and accounts of violence against demonstrators have prompted outrage and more than a few questions.

Body armor. Rubber bullets. Pepper spray. What equipment do police officers need during a demonstration?

The list is long and the price tags can be astronomical. Here’s a look at some of the equipment, how much they cost, and how they are supposed to be used.

Where does the money come from?

In some of the biggest US cities like New York City and Los Angeles, police department budgets make up a large portion of the cities’ budgets. That’s why there have been so many conversations recently about defunding police departments or otherwise redirecting money to other agencies in the community such as social services. A portion of this money goes toward the purchase and upkeep of equipment, as well as training needed to operate it properly.

The US government sometimes chips in too.

Recently, criticism has grown over a controversial arrangement called the 1033 Program, in which the US Department of Defense sends surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies around the country. At least $760 million worth of equipment has been provided through the program since August 2017, according to a CNN analysis of federal data. That includes more than $5.3 million worth of gear like riot shields, gas masks, stun guns, specialized shotguns for shooting tear gas, and other items that could be used for riot control. During recent protests, police broadly have defended their tactics by pointing to sporadic looting, vandalism and projectiles thrown at them.

Private funds, grants and other programs also supply police departments with body cameras and defensive equipment such as body armor.

Because of this combination of local, federal and private funds, it’s not unusual to see a police force with several different models and brands of equipment in use at the same time.

The Arsenal

US police are authorized to use a variety of weapons, projectiles and other devices to control crowds or deploy during encounters with civilians. In general, they are called “less lethal” or “non-lethal” weapons. The Department of Defense says these weapons are designed to “enhance the commander’s ability to deter, discourage, delay, or prevent hostile and threatening actions.”

The list below contains some of the most widely recognized and widely used “less lethal” weapons. It’s important to note that, even in the best circumstances, such weapons are imperfect tools. “We’re still in the blunderbuss age in less lethal weapons,” says Charles “Sid” Heal, a retired commander of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Heal has taught less lethal force at military war colleges and is a former president of the California Association of Tactical Officers. “The options we have are still primitive. The standard is not perfection, it’s an alternative [to deadly force].”

Many of them are shrouded in official terminology, and the way the devices are referred to often varies from department to department. Here’s a look at some commonly used devices.

Police aim rubber bullet guns toward protesters from a rooftop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 31. Reuters

Kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs) /

Impact munitions

What are they?These terms describe objects such as rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and pellets.

While some can be shot out of modified rifles, there are also special launchers designed specifically for KIPs.

A volunteer holds rubber bullets he collected while cleaning up in the aftermath of protests in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 31, over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Darron Cummings/AP

Rubber bullets /

Baton rounds

What are they?These projectiles are controversial because of their ability to cause severe injury. They are much larger than a common bullet, and their composition is complex.

A protester displays a 40mm rubber bullet used by police during a standoff with demonstrators on May 30, in Dallas, Texas. Chris Rusanowsky/ZUMA Wire

They can be several inches long, and some have metal or wood cores.

How rubber bullets have been used around the world

Rubber bullets were first used by the British Army in 1970 to control rioters in Northern Ireland during a decades-long conflict known as The Troubles. A rubber bullet gun used by the British Army is pictured in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1973. Alex Bowie/Getty Images

French police were criticized for using rubber bullets during the yellow vest protests. A French riot police officer takes aim with a rubber bullet gun during clashes with yellow vest protesters in Paris, France, in November 2019. Alfred Yaghobzadeh/Abaca/Sipa/AP

Over several months in 2019, Hong Kong authorities defended police officers’ use of force on pro-democracy and anti-government protesters. Riot police fire tear gas and rubber bullets as protesters attempt to leave The Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Bean bag rounds /

Flexible baton rounds

What are they?The bean bag is a fabric pouch filled with small lead pellets, which is stuffed into a capsule and fired out of either a shotgun or a specialized weapon.

There is typically 40g (1.4oz) of lead pellets shot in each bean bag round.

Although they vary in size, compared to 9mm lead bullets, "less lethal" bullets are much larger.

This means they don’t travel through air as fast.

However, both bean bag rounds and rubber bullets can travel long distances and still be lethal.

Charlie Mesloh, a professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Northern Michigan University, established a weapons lab at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2003, where he tested less lethal munitions. “We found that bean bags were much more accurate than other impact munitions, if you use them correctly," he says.

For bean bag rounds, Mesloh says, the ideal distance from which to shoot is usually about 10 feet.

How are police trained to use them?While there are no set rules of when to fire, officers are typically trained to only target advancing protesters who present a danger. And they are trained to target a specific person instead of firing into a crowd, which can increase the chances of more people getting hurt.

Training standards advise officers to aim KIPs at the lower abdomen or legs. "If you're going to miss, miss low," Heal says. Officers can also "skip" KIPs off the ground to lessen the likelihood of serious injury in close spaces.

Aiming from higher vantage points – such as from the roof of a building into crowds - makes it more likely that an individual will be struck in the head.

What are the health risks? In 2017, the British Medical Journal published a review that looked at reported deaths and injuries that KIPs caused when used in crowd control settings.

The report, which reviewed a 27-year period, identified 1,984 individuals who had been hit by various KIPs.

In those who survived, 71% of the injuries were classified as severe.

15% were permanently disabled.

3% died from their injuries.

84.2% of ocular injuries resulted in permanent blindness.

“I thought I died, I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe.”Josh Tuccio, protester, Atlanta

Josh Tuccio, 30, was taking part in a protest in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 28 when he said police began firing tear gas at demonstrators. “We weren’t even chanting at the time,” he told CNN. “We were just standing and walking.” In the confusion, Tuccio was shot four times with rubber bullets. One fractured his brow bone and his nose, and the others hit him in the throat and stomach.

This image contains graphic content. Click to view.

Josh Tuccio

Courtesy Josh Tuccio

After the panic subsided, Tuccio described the feeling as excruciating pain so widespread he couldn’t even tell where he’d been hit. He spent a night in the hospital, where he received several stitches and treatment for a scratched cornea (he was wearing eyeglasses at the time he was hit). Two weeks after the incident, he still had a welt the size of a golf ball on his throat. But the bruises on his body, he said, were finally starting to fade.

Police using pepper spray on protesters in Portland, Oregon, on June 1. Reuters

Pepper spray /

OC spray /

Chemical munitions

What is it?Oleoresin capsicum (OC) is an oil-based compound derived from a variety of pepper plants, including cayenne and chile. This compound is incorporated into a liquid to be used as an aerosol spray.

The purpose of pepper spray is to temporarily blind and incapacitate by causing a burning sensation in the eyes and irritation to the airway and skin.

Consider this: On the Scoville Scale, a scale used to rate the “hotness” of peppers,

A bell pepper rates at 0.

A jalapeño pepper rates at around 5,000.

A Carolina Reaper holds the record for being the hottest chili in the world rating at 1.5 million.

Most pepper sprays used by law enforcement rate at 500,000 to 2 million SHU though one brand rates at 5.3 million SHU, according to the Police Policy Studies Council.

The only higher-rating naturally occurring substances are pure Capsaicin and Resiniferatoxin, which are not commercially available.

How are police trained to use it? Pepper spray is designed to be sprayed at the face from a recommended distance of 3 feet (1m), according to The Police Policy Studies Council.

For crowd management situations, law enforcement offices purchase pepper spray in larger canisters of 470ml (16oz) up to to 1.4L (47oz).

Apart from a spray, it's also available as a foam or a gel which can be target-specific in high winds.

Officers are encouraged to expose themselves to OC during training, to understand how it feels and train the body if they experience secondary exposure.

Protester Stanford Smith receives help after being pepper sprayed in the face, during a demonstration on May 30, in Denver, Colorado. AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

What are the health risks?In recent years, some research has shown pepper spray has become less popular than other less lethal methods like stun guns. One reason is how damaging the compound can be.

Pepper spray is an inflammatory agent. It can cause severe irritation in the eyes as well as respiratory problems such as coughing and shortness of breath. Psychologically, the fear of blindness and suffocation can be overwhelming. Once the inflammation starts, the effects are difficult to neutralize.

The effects of pepper spray last, on average, 30 minutes. Mild conjunctivitis can persist for several hours.

Police throw a tear gas canister at demonstrators in Seattle, Washington, June 13. Nelson Salisbury/Twitter/@tetraphis_/Reuters

Tear gas /

Riot control agents /

CS gas

What is it?Some tear gas isn’t really “gas,” but rather a powder that is pressurized into a compact tablet. A common tear gas compound, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, or CS gas.

CS gas is named after Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton, the two American scientists who first synthesized the compound in 1928.

How are police trained to use it? Tear gas is outlawed for use in war under the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention further expanded the definition to riot control agents -- however, the US is one of the countries where riot control agents can still be used by law enforcement.

Officers typically deploy tear gas for purposes of crowd dispersal. There are different delivery methods for CS gas, according to the UN: Projectiles, canisters, grenades and sprays. Some canisters work by igniting a compound within, which releases the gas through holes.

Other tear gas devices contain multiple projectiles, or submunitions, that are released among the crowd.

“The first breath was fine. The next was like inhaling fire.”British journalist Michael Mosley, who was willingly exposed to CS gas while working on a documentary on chemical weapons development for BBC. BBC

Police advance on demonstrators protesting the killing of George Floyd on May 30 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Scott Olson/Getty Images

What are the health risks?Tear gas has similar effects to pepper spray. It causes a burning sensation of mucous membranes, like in the eyes and throat. According to the CDC the effects include blurred vision, difficulty swallowing, a choking sensation, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

The indiscriminate dispersion makes it difficult to target individuals or small groups, particularly in windy conditions.

A gas canister is deployed by police during clashes with demonstrators in Seattle, Washington, on June 8. David Ryder/Getty Images.

A 2017 systematic review of tear gas used for crowd control between 1990 and 2015 found that tear gas, dispersed in confined spaces, can cause permanent injury to the respiratory system and death.

Bodycam footage of officers using a CED in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 30. Atlanta Police Department/Reuters

Conductive electrical device (CED) /

Electronic control weapon /

Electronic stun device /

Stun gun /


Taser X26P, a model commonly used by US law enforcement. Axon

What is it? A CED is a battery-operated, handheld device that sends pulses of electric current through a person’s body via two small darts, almost like jumping a car. The dominant brand of CED is Taser.

Once fired, the darts attach to the skin and stay connected to the main device via copper wires that reach 25 feet (7.6m).

A single trigger discharges an electrical charge for 5 seconds. Most CED models are loaded with a single shot, though some advanced models can hold up to three shots.

The result is neuromuscular incapacitation - where the muscles contract uncontrollably, preventing the person from moving purposefully. This effect is also called "muscle tetanization."

CEDs are primarily used to incapacitate people at a distance. However, many CEDs also have a "drive-stun mode" which delivers an electric shock when pressed directly against a person resulting in localized, intense pain.

A Taser X26P, one model commonly used by law enforcement, can retail for about $1,200. Additionally, a single shot of a CED can cost about $20.

“…our research showed that it [CEDs] was used too often and I think that’s a training and a supervision and an accountability issue.” Geoffrey P. Alpert, speaking in 2012 on the police use-of-force study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice

How are police trained to use it? Officers should give a verbal warning before using a CED, and are advised to avoid targeting the head, throat, around the heart and genitals. The preferred target area is the back because it has large muscle groups.

If the target is facing the CED, officers are advised to aim at the belt line, so that one dart attaches above the waist and one below the waist. This will cause most people to lose their balance and fall to the ground.

The more distance between where the two darts land on the body, the more nerve fibers are affected. 12 inches is optimal. Less than 4 inches typically creates a pain effect only.

Mesloh, the Northern Michigan University professor, notes that CEDs don’t always work. They can miss their intended target or get caught on clothing.

What are the health risks? Common CED injuries are caused by the darts themselves depending on where they penetrate the body.

A paper released in 2020 by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says risk of significant injury or even death is increased in those with heart disease or those who have taken certain drugs.

How does it feel? "It’s unpleasant," says Mesloh. "If you’ve ever been shocked, it’s similar. It's not that it's painful; it locks you up. You just really can’t do a whole lot of anything."

Regulatory problems

When looking at less lethal weaponry, it’s important to note that there are no universal standards in equipment specifications or training.

“It’s a totally unregulated field, and there is no oversight,” says Mesloh, the professor at Northern Michigan University. “All of the [product] information will be driven by the manufacturer, and the big ones may offer instructor training courses on things like less lethal munitions and diversionary devices. So what may happen is you go to a four or five-day school, you come back and you teach your entire department. But it may be a one-day class instead, and a lot of that information may be eliminated.”

In the United States, there is no federal regulatory body for law enforcement agencies, but professional associations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and non-governmental organizations like the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) can provide important framework for law enforcement policy and practices. However, accreditation costs money to obtain and maintain, and participation in these programs is voluntary. Absent of compulsory standards, smaller departments will often model their policies off larger departments that have more resources to conduct research and training.

“In the United States, there are about 17,800 local law enforcement agencies and every single one is autonomous... They work for different communities and they have different expectations.” Former LASD commander Sid Heal

Although the US government has little authority to prescribe what local law enforcement agencies should do, the Department of Justice does have the authority to investigate unconstitutional policing practices. Historically, this has been a powerful way to regulate police misconduct. Former DOJ lawyers have noted however that the department has largely abandoned such investigations in recent years, and DOJ leadership has defended police and police tactics during the recent protests.

Personal protection

In addition to weaponry, police on the scene of protests will usually be clad in various types of protection, like body armor, helmets and shields. It’s also not uncommon to see groups of officers with different types of protective equipment, because departments can rely on more than one type of funding to secure it. Private and federal grants can help departments secure and maintain protective equipment.

Smaller law enforcement agencies, or those without equipment needed to address a local crisis, can call on help from other agencies. This is called a mutual aid system, and such a request can even be routed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or built into a state of emergency declaration.

“In these situations, you’re expected to bring your own stuff,” says Heal, the retired commander with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

Police in riot gear surround a young man in Chicago, Illinois, on May 30 before pepper spraying him. CNN

Ballistic vest /

Ballistic armor /

Bulletproof vest /

Flak jacket

These vests are a common type of body armor seen among police on the front lines of protests.

The National Institute of Justice, which is an agency of the US Department of Justice, rates body armor performance on a standard scale.

For a “heightened threat environment” the NIJ recommends armor with Level III or Level IV protection, which is known as “hard armor.”

These vests are designed to lessen the blow of most common types of bullets from handguns and even rifles.

Police knock back protesters at a rally over the death of George Floyd on May 30 in Las Vegas, Nevada. John Locher/AP

The makeup of ballistic vests can vary. The heavy-duty kinds usually contain some type of aramid, which is a synthetic fiber, woven to create a flexible, impact-resistant sheet. Kevlar is a popular kind of aramid fiber used in these vests.

Body armor can also be reinforced with light, strong metals like carbon and steel, and even very strong plastics.

The cost of a ballistic vest depends on the protection level, but ones with Level III or IV protection can run several hundred dollars apiece.

"Since 1999, the Bulletproof Vest Partnership program has awarded more than 13,000 jurisdictions a total of $467 million in federal funds for the purchase of over one million vests." Source: US Department of Justice, February 2020


Like other police gear, the types of shields police use during protests can vary greatly depending on the manufacturer and the law enforcement agency. In this video, there is more than one agency present, some of which are not local police. This explains the variety of gear. Police and other law enforcement stand guard around the White House in Washington DC amid protests on June 3. Reuters

The NIJ’s specifications for what kind of materials can be used in these shields are highly technical, but the bottom line is this:

They need to be resistant to heat, they can’t splinter or crack apart from the impact of bullets or blunt objects, and they should be able to be cleaned easily.

They should also cover a good portion of a police officer’s body, from shoulder to thigh or more.

These shields come with an enormous price tag: A new Level IIIA ballistic shield can cost $3,000 or more. Police stand guard around CNN Center as protests continue over the death of George Floyd on May 30 in Atlanta, Georgia. Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Increasing accountability

Calls for more documentation and police accountability have been ringing through the US for decades. The shooting deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other Black Americans brought the topic back to the forefront in 2014. The worldwide protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd, another Black man, at the hands of police officers in May 2020, have once again amplified the issue and renewed calls for police to wear bodycams.

A police officer wears a bodycam during a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 31. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Bodycam /

Body-worn camera

How do they work?They are small devices that can be clipped to an officer’s outerwear or even worn on the side of glasses.

Depending on the department’s policies, they can be required to be constantly running, or can be triggered by an event, perhaps when an officer pulls their gun from their holster.

Axon Body 2, a bodycam used by the LAPD. Axon

How are police trained to use it? Although there is no federal requirement for officers to wear bodycams, at least 19 states and Washington DC require police departments to have written bodycam policies. In places where there is no state mandate, different jurisdictions are left to form their own policies.

The New York City Police Department, for instance, distributed 20,000 bodycams to all uniformed patrol officers in February 2019. They don’t require the cameras to capture all interactions with the public, but do require that police record things such as arrests, searches, uses of force, and “interactions with emotionally disturbed people.”

Cost is a huge prohibition. Bodycams can cost hundreds of dollars on top of the time, effort and cost to upkeep them and maintain footage.

A lot of focus is on body cameras as a method of police accountability. Police departments often adopt new policies and technologies in the wake of tragedies. The Louisville Police Department changed its policy to require all sworn officers to wear body cameras after officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 27-year-old emergency medical technician, as they attempted to execute a search warrant at her home in March 2020.

Some agencies require bodycam footage to be made public as a form of transparency, and these policies can result in real consequences.

However, a study from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington DC found body cameras didn’t make much of a difference in officers’ use of force. Another study from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department found LVMPD officers wearing bodycams received less complaints and use of force reports, but issued more arrests and citations.

Rights groups have also raised concerns, saying the prevalence of facial recognition software and unclear policies on who has access to bodycam footage could invite privacy violations.

A police officer wears a bodycam during a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 31. Atlanta Police Department/Reuters

During recent protests, two officers in Atlanta, Georgia, were fired after their bodycams showed them yanking two students out of a car after breaking the windows. They have filed a lawsuit contesting their firing, saying they were denied due process. The footage is here.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the city’s police chief was fired after it was discovered officers involved in a fatal shooting during a protest did not have their bodycams turned on.

As unrest continues, and accounts of police violence keep filtering through social media and through ever-present cell phone recordings, the calls for police reform — whether it be in the form of bodycams, policy changes, or something more drastic — are sure to grow even louder.

Meanwhile, some cities have considered significant budget cuts to their police departments. A few others, like Minneapolis, made plans to dismantle their departments entirely in favor of alternative approaches to public safety, like increased social services, access to mental health assistance and better education and community programs.

It’s not clear what the impact of such measures will be on agencies’ use of less lethal options. In Los Angeles, city leaders are both cutting the police budget and promising to enhance de-escalation and crowd control training.

While legislators, law enforcement officers and activists may offer different solutions to the problems posed by less lethal weapons and police use of force, the goals are the same: Less deaths, less injury, less risk, and fewer peaceful protests that end in tragedy.