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Should tear gas be banned in Boston in most circumstances?

Police officers walked down a gas-filled Winter Street in Boston's Downtown Crossing on May 31.
Police officers walked down a gas-filled Winter Street in Boston's Downtown Crossing on May 31.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Following violence in Boston late last month that saw police deploy tear gas and sponge rounds during ugly clashes with people downtown, city councilors are now considering creating an ordinance that would restrict the use of chemical substances, as well as projectiles like rubber bullets, in crowd-control situations.

A proposal from Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Andrea Campbell would limit when police can deploy such tactics against demonstrators, if it becomes city law.

The initiative provides for circumstances where such methods would be permissible, although the criteria are narrow.

“Chemical crowd control agents are indiscriminate weapons by design, they are targeted against groups, which makes it difficult to limit the exposure of specific individuals,” said Arroyo during Wednesday’s city council City Council meeting.

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Arroyo said use of such chemicals in warfare is specifically prohibited by the Geneva Protocol of 1925, but is not currently prohibited for use by law enforcement on American citizens.

He also mentioned Victoria Snelgrove, the Emerson College student from East Bridgewater who was killed when Boston police fired pepper-pellets into a raucous crowd during the 2004 Red Sox pennant celebrations. She was struck in the eye by a pellet fired into a throng on Lansdowne Street by an officer who later said he was aiming for someone else.

If passed, Arroyo believed the measure would be the first of its kind in the state.

According to Arroyo and Campbell’s order, “The Boston Police Department has access to chemical crowd agents and kinetic impact projectiles, and most recently used them on May 31, 2020.”

Violence followed a massive, peaceful May 31 march protesting police brutality and systemic racism that started in Nubian Square and ended at the steps of the State House.

Later that night and into the early hours of the next morning, at least 27 people were sent to the hospital in what was the worst rioting the city had seen in recent years. Stores throughout downtown and in the Back Bay were ransacked. More than 50 people were arrested.

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Boston police used a spray similar to pepper spray, tear gas, and sponge rounds, which are made of foam rubber, during the turmoil that night, Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman, said Wednesday. Boyle said none of those tactics was used during the peaceful march and protest, and added that police also faced tear gas and pepper spray attacks from people in the crowd during the night’s tumult.

A State Police spokesman previously said in a statement that troopers “discharged pepper ball projectiles” at an “aggressive and combative mob” to get them away from a police cruiser in Boston on the night of May 31.

“We’ve all heard from numerous residents with respect to tear gas use, rubber bullets being used during peaceful demonstrations and them being injured . . . by these tools,” Campbell said at Wednesday’s meting.

Campbell said the matter is not a question of taking away tools that will make officers less safe.

“We know there are other tools, other ways we can get at protecting our officers,” she said.

On Wednesday, the proposal was referred to the council’s committee on government operations.

The situations where the councilors’ initiative would allow the use of impact projectiles or chemical agents for crowd control include ones where an on-scene supervisor with the rank of deputy superintendent or higher determines such tactics are needed in response to violence or destruction, gives at least two warnings over a loudspeaker for the crowd to disperse, and specifies what will happen if the crowd fails to do so.

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There is also legislation on Beacon Hill that would, among other actions, ban law enforcement in the state from using tear gas or other chemical weapons.

State Representative Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat and cosponsor of that proposal, said Wednesday, “Looking at the use of tear gas, we shouldn’t be deploying really what amounts to a chemical weapon against demonstrators who are by and large exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Connolly thinks that if law enforcement reaches the situation “where they felt like the use of these weapons is necessary, it appears to me that a breakdown and a failure has already occurred.” Connolly said he favored approaches that emphasized communication and deescalation.

“I’ve been disappointed to see some of the aggressive tactics that have been used to control crowds,” he said.

The day after the May 31 violence, Walsh said police “had a great plan yesterday, and a great approach.”

The discussion around crowd control tactics comes amid a larger push for police reform. Some protesters have advocated for cuts to Boston police funding, specifically the department’s overtime budget. Under a plan from Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the city would reroute $12 million from the Boston Police Department’s overtime spending — about 20 percent of its overtime budget — to social services.

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Shelley Murphy, Matt Stout, Dasia Moore, and Milton J. Valencia of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.