Guest Factor: The case for tear gas

A cop who served during the 2020 riots weighs in

This week’s Graham Factor is a guest submission from an active police officer. “Phil” is a veteran police officer in a major West Coast city and serves on a crowd control unit. I hope this will be the first of many guest submissions.

In the riots that followed the death of George Floyd, tear gas again became a common tool of law enforcement to quell the innumerable disturbances. So too, did the cry to ban it. An outright ban on tear gas and other crowd-control munitions may be a well-intended police reform effort. But like many reforms, it was proposed without consulting the subject-matter experts or law enforcement - the people trained and experienced in using such measures.

Perhaps it is too little, too late. But I would like to explain the pros and cons of using tear gas to control a riot from the perspective of someone who has personal experience with it.

Here is a scenario: There are over ten thousand people downtown, most of them “peaceful” but many of them decidedly less so. Law enforcement resources are stretched thin to the point where you have less than 50 officers defending a vital piece of police infrastructure - say, a station house. Police vehicles have already been lit on fire, and the burning of the Minneapolis Police precinct is fresh on everyone’s mind. As the crowd of more than a thousand people encroaches on the barriers surrounding a police station, dispersal orders are given. The barriers are pushed aside, and missiles thrown at the officers. About a dozen officers are specially trained to handle this situation, but the rest are a “task force”—detectives thrown back into uniform for the first time in a decade. As the mob gets closer and closer to officers, pepper spray is deployed but to little avail. The situation is looking rather hopeless.

Suddenly, the Chief gets on the radio and authorizes the use of tear gas. It is deployed into a crowd that had previously refused to heed multiple dispersal orders. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the crowd disperses almost immediately—creating the vital distance between the officers and the crowd so that officers can move barriers back into more defensible positions. No arrests are made, and no one is injured.

If this situation sounds far-fetched, I can assure you it is not because I was there. In my entire career, this was the first time I saw tear gas used in a law enforcement setting. And over the course of the next eight days, I would see it used daily. Every time I saw it deployed I witnessed the crowd dispersing immediately—the intended effect. I also did not witness any injuries related to the tear gas. Tear gas worked so well that it essentially became the school bell declaring an end to the day’s rioting. Once rung, the majority of the crowd would disperse, leaving only a few dozen die-hards to return and hurl insults at officers manning the line. But after a tear gas deployment, insults were the only thing hurled.

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So what gives? Why would anyone advocate to end this riot control cure-all? Well, politics. At some point during the riots, the narrative shifted and suddenly police became the enemy. Politicians in cities all over the country declared police tactics cruel beyond measure.

I do understand some criticisms of tear gas. As a gas, it is inherently indiscriminate. But tear gas is a heavy gas and does not travel far from the area in which it was deployed. It can linger, and if you are in an apartment or house nearby with open windows it may drift into your house. I don’t want to be cavalier in dismissing those claims or simply advise residents to close their windows when they hear an amplified dispersal order. There should be serious thought given to the area of a potential tear gas deployment.

But when it comes to other concerns raised about tear gas, most seem false. Claims were circulated that tear gas was disrupting women’s menstrual cycles. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I do know that every woman to ever complete military basic training has been exposed to a higher and more concentrated dose of tear gas. I also know that I have never heard of these complaints in that context. Tear gas is also falsely labeled as a weapon of war by those who claim it is banned by the Geneva Convention - despite the Convention’s explicit carve-out permitting law enforcement to use it during riots.1

Regardless, whether due to media hype or political myopia, tear gas has become a war crime in the eyes of the vocal minority, and so has not been used by our department since the first week of the Floyd-related disturbances. My department (and I’m sure many others) has moved on without tear gas as political concerns overrode officer safety concerns.

Two things occurred during subsequent riots that would continue for months: Arrests went up and use of force went up. I’m not aware of very many politicians or activists who would cheer that result. But like all well-intended, poorly thought out ideas, this was foreseeable. Tear gas is an irritant and a heavy lingering gas. If you stand in the cloud you will be overwhelmed, you will cough, your nose will run, your eyes will water, you won’t be able to see and you will have trouble breathing. The cloud is opaque, so even if you are wearing a gas mask it is difficult to see. But once you exit the cloud, you are granted almost immediate relief. As a result, people flee and are reluctant to return for the fifteen minutes the cloud lingers. This creates the distance and separation that is a hallmark of good de-escalation.

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Any use of force is ugly and likely to cause pain or discomfort. But sometimes it is necessary. The ideal force option is the one that causes the fewest injuries to citizens while also achieving compliance. If you want a crowd to disperse, you can use batons, pepper spray, and other munitions to move it. But compared with a gas that creates no lasting injuries, all of these options are more likely to result in mass arrests and injuries. I hope that as political leaders rush to restrict force options, they remember that as ugly as tear gar can be, the alternatives are likely to be even worse.

If you are an active or retired police officer, please send your submissions to GrahamFactor@substack.com. I am happy to help with editing, and I will not identify you or your agency without your consent.

1

Riot control agents are restricted in warfare not because they are deadly, but because of concern that “once you use tear gas in a battle, the fight will escalate to include the use of more dangerous chemical weapons, like nerve agents.” - Graham.