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An LAist Reporter Was Hit By A Police Projectile. LBPD Says The Incident Was Within Police Policy

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Minutes after he was struck in the neck while covering a protest in Long Beach, our higher education reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reported his own injury on social media. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez / LAist)
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Two Long Beach Police Department officers who fired 40mm launchers at a May protest -- one of whose rounds struck KPCC/LAist correspondent Adolfo Guzman-Lopez in the neck, sending him to the ER -- acted within department policy, according to documents released by the department this week.

The analysis did not consider Guzman-Lopez's injuries. Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna previously said he believed the foam round ricocheted off another person or object before striking Guzman-Lopez. The incident took place near the intersection of 3rd and Pine in downtown Long Beach on the afternoon of May 31.

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Guzman-Lopez's tweet about his injury, showing a crimson, horseshoe-shaped wound on his neck, attracted international attention and concern, and came amid a wave of injuries to journalists covering protests.

In reports about the firing of the launchers, the officers said they were targeting men throwing bottles towards a skirmish line of police. The two officers fired within seconds of one another.

Officer Alvin Do wrote in a report, "I placed the red dot reticle from my 40MM less lethal launcher on the subject's arm and deployed one less lethal round." Do said he saw the foam round hit his intended target on the left shoulder. He did not activate his body camera in time to capture the use of force.

In her report, Officer Amanda Aknin wrote that she fired her launcher at a man who was throwing a bottle towards police, while the bottle was in the air. She did not see if her round hit the target or anyone else.

Supervisors reviewing their actions found them within the department's policy for launching less-lethal weapons. Both Do and Aknin said they did not target Guzman-Lopez and would not target a journalist, according to notes from the investigating officer.

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ANOTHER USE OF FORCE

The May 2020 use of force was not Aknin's first in recent years.

Aknin used a Taser twice in 2018 on Jose Encinas, who was fleeing police after a traffic stop. A civil rights case filed by an attorney for Encinas alleges that Aknin saw LBPD officers repeatedly strike him with their Maglite flashlights. Aknin then used her Taser on Encinas twice, the complaint says, "even though he had lost consciousness and [was] not resisting and not assaultive toward the officers." Encinas is seeking millions in damages for his injuries, which included a bleeding brain.

A response by attorneys for Long Beach and Aknin denies that Encinas "was not resisting and was not assaultive towards the officers".

In a separate case filed in 2019, a Long Beach man alleged that he was "lawfully driving home" and turning into his driveway when Aknin crashed her LBPD patrol vehicle into his car, injuring the man and his two sons. An attorney for Aknin and Long Beach denied the allegations.

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Both cases are pending.

"THEY CAN HIT BYSTANDERS"

Guzman-Lopez was shot while covering protests in downtown Long Beach on May 31.

He suffered a serious wound. "I felt my throat. My fingertips had blood on them," he recalled in an essay. The fillings were knocked out of his teeth, a CT scan showed, and he took several weeks of medical leave to recover from his injuries.

The 40mm foam round that struck him in the neck was manufactured by Defense Technology, which touts the projectile's effectiveness as "both a psychological deterrent and physiological distraction, serving as a pain compliance device."

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At full speed, the projectile can travel at 325 feet per second. While less deadly than firearms, weapons such as rubber bullets, pepper spray balls, foam launchers and bean bag rounds maim and even kill.

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An overhead shot of the scene at 3rd and Pine by Instagram user @ill_aerials

"They can ricochet, they have unpredictable trajectories, they can hit bystanders," said Dr. Rohini Haar, an ER doctor and medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights. Haar wrote a 2018 report urging that weapons such as rubber bullets be prohibited in crowd control.

"There's really no safe way to use rubber bullets or any sort of kinetic impact projectiles in a crowd," she said. "They are by nature indiscriminate and dangerous."

In a July interview with KPCC/LAist journalists, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna told Guzman-Lopez, "It looks like you were inadvertently hit with a round that ricocheted either off something or somebody." The two officers fired their launchers within four seconds of one another, Luna said.

"We will never know which one of those [officers] fired the round" that hit Guzman-Lopez, Luna said at the time. The department did not release the names of the officers until today, more than six months after the incident.

An outside doctor and a use-of-force expert interviewed by LAist said that the injuries were consistent with a ricocheted 40mm foam round. Charles Mesloh, a professor at Northern Michigan University who studies police weapons, said the shape of the bruise shows that the foam round hit Guzman-Lopez's neck "sideways" after possibly bouncing off another surface.

But Mesloh, a former cop, said that the officer who fired the weapon into a crowded intersection is accountable for Guzman-Lopez's injuries: "You're responsible for the projectile from the moment it leaves the end of your gun, until it comes to final rest."

A SUMMER OF ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS

Guzman-Lopez was not the only KPCC/LAist reporter injured at the hands of law enforcement in 2020. Correspondent Josie Huang was violently arrested by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies on September 12 as she filmed the arrest of an anti-police protester in Lynwood. While documenting the incident, Huang was thrown to the ground, pinned, handcuffed and arrested.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva later made numerous false and misleading statements about the incident, several of them contradicted by video footage. The arrest drew widespread condemnation, including from Los Angeles elected officials and a coalition of 64 media organizations.

The sheriff's department filed charges against Huang for obstructing sheriff's deputies, but the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office declined to pursue them, citing "insufficient evidence" provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The shooting of Guzman-Lopez and arrest of Huang were not isolated incidents. Other reporters in Southern California, including other KPCC/LAist staffers, were tear-gassed and struck with police batons during protests this year.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented hundreds of "press freedom incidents" in the United States in 2020, among them over 100 arrests, and 302 attacks on journalists, including injuries from rubber bullets and tear gassings.