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RPD expands officer use of PepperBall guns 

As Rochester police officers in riot gear tried to break up the protest-turned-chaos that unfolded in front of the Public Safety Building on May 30, they turned to PepperBall guns, which fire projectiles that explode and disperse a highly-irritating spray of Capsaicin II powder into the air.

At the time, only officers of the force’s specially trained tactical unit had access to the weapons.

But a Rochester Police Department policy change that quietly took effect two weeks ago authorized any officer to use the weapons in a variety of circumstances, including when a civilian is acting aggressively or when breaking up a large fight.

The change in departmental policy is detailed in a new standard operating procedure dated July 13 on the use of PepperBalls and their “launchers,” which resemble paintball guns, recently made public by the RPD.

“The operating procedure has remained the same, however the policy (before this publication) was made solely for our Special Teams to utilize the PepperBall Launching Systems,” Investigator Jacqueline Shuman, the RPD’s public information officer, said in an email. “We have amended the policy for our Patrol Division to utilize the PepperBall Launching Systems.”

To use a PepperBall gun, according to the procedure, officers must have completed annual training and have the approval of the supervising officer on scene. Officers must also file use-of-force reports any time they use the weapon on a person or crowd, just like they do if they deploy their department-issued sidearm.

The procedure strictly outlines how PepperBall launchers are to be used, including a directive that officers not shoot people in the face, throat, spine, or base of the neck. It also refers to their use as a last resort, stating that weapons are only to be deployed when all other methods to quell a situation have failed, and only fired directly at a person in the most extreme of scenarios.

Along with two types of PepperBalls of varying strength, RPD can also load the launchers with a glass breaking projectile. Those rounds are not meant to be fired at suspects.

As the nation erupted in protests in May following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, scenes of police officers firing PepperBalls into crowds were a somewhat common sight.

When Rochester police fired PepperBalls into the crowd that gathered outside of the Public Safety Building on May 30, the chemical irritant projectiles not only struck the ground, but they struck individual protestors and journalists in the group, too.

Some reports have shown that, while not considered lethal, the projectiles can be quite dangerous. Journalists and protesters have claimed to have been injured — some partially blinded — by PepperBalls.

For example, National Geographic videographer Trip Jennings reported on July 26 that he had been shot in the face by what he believed was a PepperBall as he covered the ongoing protests in Portland. The projectile shattered the lens of his gasmask and left lacerations beneath his left eye.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.

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