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What are less-lethal rounds? Police explain munitions used in Austin protests

Police are currently investigating a number of incidents in which protesters were hospitalized after being shot with these rounds.

AUSTIN, Texas — With several days of protests across the city at times resulting in less-lethal gunfire from police against protesters, many people have been questioning the munitions currently in use.

Some have questioned if police have been firing rubber bullets. However, the Austin Police Department reports it has actually been using two different types of less-lethal munitions throughout the protests:

"When the bean bag's fired, it's only traveling about 300 feet per second, which is real slow," said tactical trainer Robert Raya. "Whereas like if I fire a 9mm round now that's traveling 150, that is moving super fast to where you don't see the round traveling, whereas with the beanbag you can see it coming."

Robert Raya owns Castle Tactical and is a certified firearm instructor. He said the less-lethal 12-gauge bean bag rounds, made of a small fabric pillow filled with lead pellets, shouldn't have been used to hit protesters in the upper body

"Everybody is trained not to hit what we call the "red area," which is head, throat and solar plex area, and even the abdomen, because those can actually become lethal," said Rayas.

He said for safety purposes, people should be at least 15 feet away before shooting a bean bag round.  

Credit: Austin Police Department

"So when I see people that have gotten bleeding wounds from those types, they were shot at close distance. And if that's all they had, then there's something wrong with that," said Reyes.

As of Thursday, however, police said they will no longer be using the bean bag rounds to fire upon crowds.

Product descriptions for these items include warnings like "shots to the head, neck, spine, thorax or heart can result in fatal or serious injury," and "it is stressed that shot placement, rather than deployment range, is the critical factor in determining the extent of injury caused."

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The bean bag product police described is advertised with a range of 15 to 60 feet. It travels at a velocity of about 280 feet per second. And the foam round is advertised with a range of 9.84 feet to 98.4 feet. It travels at a velocity of about 250 feet per second.

According to the department's general orders, these kinetic-energy projectiles are fired from 12-gauge shotguns in an attempt to "de-escalate potentially deadly situations."

The orders state the following circumstances are appropriate for deployment:

  1. The subject is armed with a weapon and the tactical circumstances allow for the safe application of approved munitions.
  2. The subject has made credible threats to harm himself or others.
  3. The subject is engaged in riotous behavior or is throwing rocks, bottles or other dangerous projectiles at people and/or officers, creating a risk for injury.
  4. There is reasonable suspicion to believe that the subject has already committed a crime of violence and is refusing to comply with lawful orders

Before deployment, the officer should also consider:

  1. The subject's capability to pose an imminent threat to the safety of officers or others.
  2. Whether the subject is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
  3. The credibility of the subject's threat as evaluated by the officers present, and the subject's physical capacity/capability to carry out the threat.
  4. The availability of other force options and their possible effectiveness.
  5. Distance and angle to target.
  6. Type of munitions employed.
  7. Type and thickness of subject's clothing.
  8. The subject's actions dictate the need for an immediate response and the use of control devices appears appropriate.

Officers have also used smoke devices and CS gas to deter protesters from blocking I-35.

Over the weekend, at least two people were seriously injured by police. According to Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, a pregnant woman was also reportedly shot. Initial reports state they were not the officers' intended targets.

The two seriously injured include a teenager and a 20-year-old Texas State University student, the latter suffering critical injuries.

In an emotional press conference on Monday, Manley confirmed these incidents and stated investigations are underway.

"What I say to them now is my heart is with you," Manley said. "I'm praying for your child. I'm hoping they have a complete and quick recovery. And I will make myself open to speak with you and answer questions." 

The ongoing protests are in response to the deaths of Mike Ramos in Austin and George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police.

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