Tear Gas Bans: A Policing Change Not Gaining Traction

By: - August 4, 2020 12:00 am

Philadelphia put a moratorium on tear gas during protests after the chemical was dispersed during a march calling for justice over the death of George Floyd. Lawmakers in several states want to ban or restrict the use of tear gas but face opposition. Matt Rourke/The Associated Press

As legislators across the United States propose policing changes, one issue has been a sticking point: bans on police using tear gas against protesters.

Dozens of law enforcement agencies have used forms of tear gas on protesters marching against police brutality since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Over that time, many police chiefs and law enforcement leaders have supported legislation to improve their work. But bans on tear gas to quell crowds of protesters? From a police perspective, that’s not going to fly.

While lawmakers in at least nine states have introduced bills that would ban or limit the use of tear gas by police, many of the measures have been rejected or softened, including:

In Oregon, tear gas ban legislation passed — after it was amended to give an exception for riots.

In Michigan, the chair of the state House Judiciary Committee doesn’t want to take up a bill to ban chemical agents because he said it would hamstring police.

In California, the sponsor of a tear gas ban said she purposely avoided getting input from police expecting they would not be in favor.

Police say outright bans are a step too far and cut out an important, less lethal way of controlling violent crowds. 

“What if we didn’t have gas? What would our alternative be?” said Jim Ferraris, president of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and former police chief in the state’s two biggest cities: Portland and Salem. “Our alternative is physical force.”

But advocates of prohibiting tear gas refute that notion, especially as protests continue around the country.

“If you’re using tear gas on people sitting peacefully, if you’re firing rubber bullets into a crowd that is yelling angrily … it creates violence when none exists,” said Rachel Moran, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis who studies police accountability.

“It’s law enforcement creating the danger, initiating the violence,” she said. “That’s really troubling to me.”

The Tear Gas Debate

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, a United Nations agreement, banned chemical weapons in warfare — with an exception for law enforcement for domestic riot control purposes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines riot control agents, commonly referred to as tear gas, as chemical compounds that cause temporarily debilitating irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin.

The most common kinds are chloroacetophenone and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, typically sprayed as a liquid from pressurized canisters or tossed into a crowd as grenades. The CDC also lists pepper spray as a riot control agent.

Oleoresin capsicum, an extract derived from cayenne pepper plants, known as pepper spray, also can be dispensed from canisters or used to fill paintball-like projectiles. 

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Lindsey Van Ness
Lindsey Van Ness

Lindsey Van Ness is an assistant production editor and staff writer for Stateline. Previously Lindsey reported on public safety issues at LNP and LancasterOnline in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.