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A group of Oakland City Council members sent a letter Wednesday to Mayor Libby Schaaf, City Administrator Ed Reiskin and interim police Chief Susan Manheimer calling for an indefinite suspension of the use of tear gas to control and disperse crowds during the ongoing protests and amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
In the letter, City Council members Nikki Fortunato Bas, Rebecca Kaplan and Sheng Thao argued that the use of tear gas could needlessly put people at risk for respiratory issues amid a pandemic that can cause significant respiratory damage.
The three council members also noted that the department’s own training bulletin states that breathing tear gas can cause coughing and sneezing, both of which can spread the coronavirus via droplets.
“The use of tear gas for crowd control adversely affects individuals in crowds of protestors as well as residents who are not involved in protesting, and it can have serious effects on medically vulnerable people and increase the spread of COVID-19,” Bas, Kaplan and Thao wrote.
Public health officials have cautioned against the prevalent use of tear gas in recent days as law enforcement officers have used the chemical agent to disperse people protesting police brutality and racism following the death of George Floyd in the Minneapolis Police Department’s custody.
The three council members also requested answers from city and law enforcement officials about when, why and how gas is deployed during protests, what restrictions are in place for tear gas use and how the Oakland Police Department ensures that other agencies assisting in crowd control follow the department’s best practices for tear gas use.
“Tear gas has been banned for use in warfare, but is legal for police to use in the U.S. Yet, experts say it should be a weapon of last resort for crowd control and for addressing violent behavior of specific individuals because it affects everyone in the area including peaceful protestors,” the council members wrote in the letter.
The council members said they have heard from members of the public claiming that law enforcement officers have used tear gas on peaceful protesters and have wantonly spread it to residences and vehicles of people not involved in protests over the last week.
On Monday, a protest at Frank Ogawa Plaza ended with law enforcement officers using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd of roughly 1,000 protesters.
Police said Monday night that officers only fired tear gas at protesters after bottles and other objects were thrown toward officers.
The mayor’s office and a spokesperson for the Oakland Police Department could not immediately be reached for comment on the councilmembers’ letter.