The line separating lethal and nonlethal force seems clear enough. Something that has a high probability of killing somebody, such as a gun or knife, is lethal whereas something that has a low probability of killing somebody, such as a punch to the gut or pepper spray, is nonlethal. But all too often people don’t consider the totality of the situation (a favorite phrase of cop apologists trying to excuse what appears to be obviously egregious behavior by an officer). Consider this story about the pipeline protests in North Dakota:
Tear gas was used to disperse a crowd of 400 protesters at the Dakota Access Pipeline late Sunday after clashes that authorities described as a “riot” prompted by “very aggressive” activists.
A law enforcement officer was hit on the head by a thrown rock during the confrontation, Morton County Sheriff’s Office said in an update at 1 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET).
Videos posted to Facebook by activists showed authorities spray a continuous stream of water over demonstrators in below-freezing temperatures but sheriff’s spokesman Rob Keller told NBC News that no water cannon were deployed. He said the water was being sprayed from a fire truck to control blazes as they were being set by activists.
“Officers on the scene are describing protesters’ actions as very aggressive,” the release noted. “In order to keep protesters from crossing the bridge, law enforcement have utilized less-than-lethal means, including launching CS gas.”
In spite of what the police claimed, the videos and images from the protest make it clear that they were deliberately spraying the protesters with water cannons, not putting out fires. Even considering that normally water cannons are considered nonlethal because spraying somebody with a water cannon isn’t likely to kill them. However, at the time of this police action temperatures in the area were below freezing and anybody who lives up here in the northern states knows that hypothermia can become lethal quickly.
If we’re supposed to consider the “totality of the situation” when police officers do something seemingly terrible then police officers should be held to the same standard. Driving out firetrucks with the intention of spraying down protesters in below freezing weather is lethal force. The officers might as well have opened fire with rifles. They certainly don’t have grounds to claim they were utilizing less-than-lethal means.