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Why Did Police Shoot An LAist Reporter With A Foam Round In Long Beach?

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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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While covering a protest on May 31, KPCC/LAist reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez was shot in the neck with a 40mm foam round by a Long Beach Police Department officer. The incident drew international attention, but for weeks the circumstances have been unclear.

Now, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna has provided an explanation to Guzman-Lopez: "It looks like you were inadvertently hit with a round that ricocheted either off something or somebody," he said in a meeting with Guzman-Lopez and other LAist journalists last week.

Two officers in the area fired their launchers within four seconds of one another, Luna said, shooting towards two men who'd thrown bottles at police.

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"We will never know which one of those [officers] fired the round" that hit Guzman-Lopez, Luna said. The department has not released the names of the two officers; a spokesperson said it would only after an Internal Affairs investigation is completed.

No body camera or CCTV footage captured the round hitting Guzman-Lopez, Luna said. But an outside doctor and a police weapons scholar told LAist that the injuries are consistent with a ricocheted 40mm foam round.

Guzman-Lopez suffered a serious wound. "I felt my throat. My fingertips had blood on them," he recalls 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.


READ ADOLFO'S ESSAY: A Cop Shot Me With A Foam Projectile And I'm Still Feeling The Shock

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Yet it could have been much worse, emergency physician Dr. Howard Mell said. "A direct hit from a 40mm, less-lethal munition to a patient's neck? I would expect immediate life-threatening injuries."

Long Beach police are trained not to fire at the head or neck.

Charles Mesloh, a professor at Northern Michigan University who studies less-lethal weapons, believes 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."

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'PAIN COMPLIANCE DEVICE'

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Graduate student Jorge Roa was at the protests on May 31, taking photos. He watched the protest grow more tense as the afternoon wore on: "The [launchers] went from being pointed at the ground to being pointed up," he recalled.

Roa was about a block from 3rd & Pine that afternoon when he heard a loud pop. People rushed by, including a reporter in a polo shirt. That was Guzman-Lopez, who stopped to ask Roa to inspect his injury.

The photographer was taken aback. "I was an EMT before. Two inches up and he wouldn't have been walking around like that. That was a serious shot that he got very, very lucky for." He snapped a picture showing the crimson, horseshoe-shaped wound on Guzman-Lopez's neck.

The two said goodbye, and Roa walked over to the intersection. He collected what he believes is the foam round that struck Guzman-Lopez; it's at his apartment.

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Foam round recovered by Jorge Roa, with banana for scale.

The blue-tipped, bullet-shaped round is the model used by Long Beach police. It's manufactured by the company Defense Technology, which touts its effectiveness as "both a psychological deterrent and physiological distraction, serving as a pain compliance device."

At full speed, the projectile can travel at 325 feet per second, the manufacturer says. That comes in handy in "situations where maximum deliverable energy is desired for the incapacitation of an aggressive, non-compliant subject," its product sheet states.

Foam projectiles are among a class of less-lethal munitions that have come under scrutiny in recent weeks, following their use at anti-police brutality protests across the country. While less deadly than firearms, weapons such as rubber bullets, pepper spray balls, foam launchers and bean bag rounds maim and even kill.

"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."

She called injuries like Guzman-Lopez's "entirely predictable."

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez tweeted shortly after suffering his wounds; the tweet went viral and sparked an outcry. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia publicly apologized to Guzman-Lopez the next day. In June, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors mentioned him in a resolution affirming the rights of journalists to cover protests without being injured, harassed or arrested.

Other reporters in Southern California, including other KPCC/LAist staffers, were tear-gassed and struck with police batons during recent protests.

A July letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called for "immediate, concrete steps to prevent further attacks by law enforcement on journalists in California, as have occurred repeatedly during the police response to the George Floyd protests." (The letter was signed by LAist's parent company.)

TWO SHOTS

The videos that Long Beach police showed to LAist depict a largely peaceful protest, with a crowd kneeling at the sunny intersection. Most protesters at 3rd and Pine were several yards away from a skirmish line of officers in riot gear.

Just before 6:30, a pair of suspects hurled two bottles at police. The department considers that assault with a deadly weapon. (Police said protesters tossed glass bottles, plastic bottles, frozen water bottles and pyrotechnics at police at that intersection on May 31.)

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

Then, two separate officers fired their launchers at the suspects, within four seconds of one another. "Their sole purpose is to protect the officers on the line," Luna said. It's unclear which officer's round may have bounced and struck Guzman-Lopez, or if the suspects or any protesters were injured. Luna said the department reviewed hundreds of body camera and CCTV videos, but that none capture Guzman-Lopez, who was several yards from the intersection.

The department trains officers to fire foam rounds at the stomach, legs and lower arms, according to LBPD training Sergeant Paul Gallo. Officers learn to use the weapon at the academy and receive an annual refresher. They're instructed to avoid the head and neck.

Another projectile fired by Long Beach police on May 31 blasted off the fingertip of a protester, according to a legal claim from her attorney. That incident occurred a block away from where Guzman-Lopez was shot, an hour afterward. Police in L.A. have injured dozens at protests since since May, when demonstrations against police brutality swept the city and the country.

Concern about such incidents sparked AB-66, state legislation to limit the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and foam rounds at protests. Officers must consider "the increased risk of hitting an unintended target due to unexpected movement of members of the crowd" before using force, the proposed law says.

LBPD officers fired 40mm launchers 62 times between 2014 and 2017, public records show. The department switched from beanbag shotguns to the launchers in 2014.

Use of force researcher Charles Mesloh favors the beanbags, which don't carry the risk of ricochet. "They pretty much go exactly where you want them to go," he said. "When you're dealing with things that are rubber or foam, they're going to skip around."

In his research, he found that "projectiles ricocheted in an erratic and unpredictable manner." One projectile bounced off the floor and shot out the lights in a warehouse. Another ricocheted and nearly hit a graduate student in the head, forcing Mesloh to shut down the study of the weapons.

Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna said he believed a direct hit to the throat with a 40mm foam round would have sent Guzman-Lopez to the hospital with "significant, serious injuries." The Long Beach PD said it will review the incident to determine whether the officers who fired at 3rd and Pine were within department policy.

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