Foucha Coner eventually regained sight in his right eye, but his future remains blurry.
The projectile that police fired at him during a downtown Sacramento protest could have been a foam bullet, a beanbag, or a pepper ball. He doesn’t know for sure, but it left a gash near his eye.
The 22-year-old remembers the chaotic scene at the summer protest, when demonstrators outraged over the killing of George Floyd squared off with police officers, who then shot impact weapons into the crowd.
Coner spent that night in the emergency room.
“I had to have seven sutures and [temporarily] lost sight in my eye,” said Coner in an interview with CapRadio. “To this day, I still have blind spots.”
Flash bangs, pepper balls and gas send people running east on L pic.twitter.com/gV86dXzQCp— Scott Rodd (@SRodd_CPR) June 1, 2020
While some protesters caused widespread property damage that night, Coner has not been charged with any wrongdoing and maintains he was protesting peacefully.
He joined the demonstrations on the night of May 31 to call out police brutality. But unlike other protesters, he saw a future in the institution he wanted to reform. He was training to be an emergency medical technician at the time, with plans for a career in law enforcement.
“I grew up in a very impoverished community,” said Coner, a first-generation Black American whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador. “That’s why I wanted to go into law enforcement … I wanted to be that presence in my community that could bring positive change.”
A protest, a projectile and an ensuing hospital visit derailed those plans.
“It definitely discouraged me from going further with that career path,” he said. “It flipped my life upside down.”
Demonstrations across California this year highlighted the harmful potential of rubber bullets, pepper balls, tear gas and other crowd control weapons. Protesters have been injured — sometimes permanently — during racial justice protests, and even during championship celebrations for professional sports teams.
These high-profile incidents, along with a growing body of research showing the dangers of crowd control weapons, are accelerating reform efforts. A bill in the state Legislature would restrict the use of projectiles and ban traditional tear gas altogether at protests. Supporters say they have the momentum to pass such a measure after a similar bill stalled last session.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom in October called for more stringent training standards regarding use of crowd control weapons for law enforcement statewide. The state commission responsible for developing police training says it plans to release new guidelines on protest response at the start of the new year.
“Protesters have the right to protest peacefully,” he said during a press conference amid the summer protests. “Protesters have the right to do so without being arrested, gassed or shot at by projectiles.”
However, proponents of restricting use of these weapons face opposition from California’s powerful law enforcement lobby, which sees value in using them to control unruly crowds and protect the safety of officers.
“If an officer reasonably believes that someone is threatening the lives of others or has to defend their own life, they must be able to take action,” said Damon Kurtz, vice president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, or PORAC. “In those situations, seconds can mean the difference between life and death.”
Coner’s mother, Sandra, recalls her son having an ambition for service from a young age. He joined the Army ROTC program in high school, planning for a career in the military, but hit roadblocks because of his asthma. He then focused on becoming a police officer.
After suffering his injury at the protest, Coner says his ambitions vanished. He struggled to get out of bed in the morning, and said it was “hard to see positivity in the future.”
He eventually found motivation in his burgeoning activism.
He joined Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez during a rally in August, shortly after she introduced a bill to rein in the use of projectiles and tear gas. Coner’s firsthand experience helped illustrate their potential to inflict harm.
“People have lost eyes — people have had their jaws shattered,” said Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego, in an interview with CapRadio. “There are a lot of examples [of people] just exercising their First Amendment rights, who got caught up in a police action that seemed a little heavy handed for the situation.”
A Los Angeles Times investigation reviewed dozens of instances of the Los Angeles Police Department using force during protests, including projectiles that struck people in the head and groin.
A more sweeping study in the British Medical Journal, or BMJ, found “projectiles have caused significant morbidity and mortality during the past 27 years, much of it from penetrative injuries and head, neck and torso trauma.” The study concludes that these impact weapons “do not appear to be appropriate weapons for use in crowd-control settings,” and emphasizes the need for international guidelines on crowd control weapons.
Gonzalez’s proposal last year stalled, as lawmakers scrambled to pass coronavirus bills and struggled with technical challenges in the final days of session. It was one of several high-profile police reform bills that didn’t survive, despite numerous lawmakers expressing a commitment to advancing racial justice after the killing of George Floyd.
Gonzalez reintroduced the proposal on Monday, the first day of the new legislative session. Assembly Bill 48 would prohibit the use of projectiles or chemical agents to disperse a peaceful protest, and require police to exhaust other de-escalation techniques before using them. Departments would also have to document and report use of crowd control weapons on a monthly basis to the state Department of Justice.
Kurtz, with the law enforcement group PORAC, says the association has been negotiating with Gonzalez in recent weeks. He declined to share details, but says he sees the potential for compromise.
“As law enforcement, we continue to evolve,” he said. “We're always willing to sit down and try to find that place where we can find that middle ground.”
The legislation may have a better shot this time around, after Newsom joined the call for reforms.
In October, two of his policing advisors — Lateefah Simon, a veteran racial justice advocate, and Ron Davis, former East Palo Alto police chief who served in the Obama administration — released a report recommending restrained use of crowd control weapons and an overhaul to the way many police departments approach demonstrations.
“Deploying weapons, including kinetic impact projectiles and chemical irritants, can, in addition to causing injuries and even death, rapidly escalate conflict, and they should be used as a last resort to protect life and repel assaults when other means have been exhausted,” the report states.
Newsom used the recommendations to call on California’s law enforcement training agency — the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST — to update its training standards.
POST spokesperson Meagan Catafi says the commission is in the process of updating its crowd management guidelines and expects to release them at the beginning of the new year.
Victims of rubber bullets, pepper balls and tear gas have few options for recourse if they allege police used excessive force. Beyond filing a citizen complaint with police, going to court is one of their only options.
Coner is suing the city of Sacramento, alleging the police officers acted with “willful and conscious disregard of [his] rights, welfare and safety.” It’s one of at least several pending lawsuits against departments across the state, tied to accusations of weaponized responses to protests.
Tim Swanson, spokesperson for the city of Sacramento, said in an email that the city has received the complaint and is “in the process of evaluating it and the appropriate next steps.”
Sacramento Police spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Briggs did not respond to allegations made in Coner’s lawsuit. In an emailed statement, she said any incident involving crowd control weapons “is considered a use of force and is reviewed by our department.”
Briggs also pointed to a video on the department’s Facebook page, where she explains their use of projectiles. The video suggests that without the availability of crowd control weapons, lethal force would be the only other option in some scenarios.
That’s the kind of perspective police reform advocates say they want to change.
For Foucha, he’s still deciding if reforming law enforcement is best done from inside or outside of the system.
“Is me being part of law enforcement really helping it change, or is there something more I can do?” he asked, rhetorically. “That’s the question I’m asking myself every day.”
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