Judge bars Detroit police from using rubber bullets, tear gas

As in other cities plagued by violent riots and looting, the police in Detroit, Michigan have regularly resorted to the use of non-lethal countermeasures in an attempt to restore order. These tactics have included the usual tools of deploying tear gas, pepper spray or rubber bullets, among others. This led an activist group named Detroit Will Breath to file a lawsuit in which they asked the court to forbid the use of such tactics on the “protesters.” On Friday evening the group managed to find a federal judge willing to agree to their demands… sort of. U.S. District Judge Laurie J. Michelson, an Obama appointee, granted the request and issued a temporary order forbidding the police from engaging in such acts for two weeks while more evidence is presented. But the order came with several important strings attached. (Detroit News)

A federal judge late Friday granted a temporary restraining order requested Monday by the protest group Detroit Will Breathe, which bars Detroit police officers from using several tactics and equipment on “peaceful protesters” for 14 days.

Police Chief James Craig responded to the order by U.S. District Judge Laurie J. Michelson by saying his officers only have used force when protesters weren’t peaceful and that the ruling won’t change how the department handles demonstrations.

Detroit Will Breathe filed a federal lawsuit alleging Detroit police used “unnecessary, unreasonable and excessive force” and violated members’ constitutional rights. City attorney Lawrence Garcia responded that he welcomed the suit, because he said it allowed the city to file a counter-suit.

Here’s where we come to all of the strings attached to the judge’s order. It includes several specific police actions, but they all come with the same provision. Here’s one example (emphasis added):

Using striking weapons (including, but not limited to, batons and shields), chemical agents (including, but not limited to, tear gas and pepper spray), or rubber bullets against any individual peacefully engaging in protest or demonstrations who does not pose a physical threat to the safety of the public or police.

In other words, if you’re marching, chanting, holding up signs, giving speeches or any of the other usual activities one finds at a demonstration, the cops aren’t allowed to just start firing off tear gas canisters or shooting rubber bullets into the crowd.

Detroit’s Police Chief was able to respond with the obvious and correct rebuttal. The order is essentially meaningless because they aren’t tear gassing actual peaceful protesters, nor are they firing rubber bullets at them or anything else of the sort. It’s only when the protest turns into a riot and people are being assaulted, stores are being looted and police stations are being set on fire that the cops break out the more serious hardware. The judge’s ruling offers no sort of protection to rioters and looters, so the order should have no impact on the operations of the police.

An attorney for the group still declared victory for the group, saying that “The decision today affirms that we are on the right side of both the law and history.” I suppose that’s the sort of thing you say when you’re trying to generate some good sound bites for the media, but it seems rather silly when you consider that nothing has really changed. You can still peacefully assemble and protest to your hearts content, but as soon as it turns into a riot, the police retain the right to beat you down.

The problem is that the police are still frequently outnumbered by a significant margin when compared to the rioters. Riot shields, batons and tear gas will only protect you just so much if the mass of bodies assembled against you is overwhelming. But that’s still the entire point of keeping nonlethal offensive technology in your arsenal. If the courts take that away, the cops are left with a choice of either standing down and allowing lawlessness to prevail or opening fire with live ammunition.

Which one do you think the rioters would prefer? I’m assuming they would prefer taking a rubber bullet to the gut than a lead slug. But the cheerleaders for the rioters in the media might not be quite as concerned. Rubber bullets don’t generate as big of a headline as an actual shooting, now do they?