Spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, mass protests have clutched the nation.
While many of these protests have remained peaceful demonstrations, some have turned violent. In an attempt to control demonstrations, law enforcement officials have turned to less-lethal weapons, such as tear gas, pepper spray, police batons, and rubber bullets. (“Less-lethal,” an emergent term and more accurate term, is replacing “non-lethal.”)
That last method of less-lethal force—rubber bullets—may sound innocuous (or at least less threatening than “real” bullets). But rubber bullets can deliver a debilitating amount of pain and carry both immediate and potentially long-term harmful effects.
So what, exactly, happens when a rubber bullet hits the human body? What effects does the impact have? What does being hit with a rubber bullet feel like, exactly? If you are hit with one, is there anything you can do to immediately lessen the pain and effects? If you see someone hit with a rubber bullet, what can you do to help them?
And then there’s the matter of after-care. What should you do in the hours and days that follow to ensure that you’re healing as well as possible?
For answers, we turned to Jeffrey M. Goodloe, M.D., F.A.C.E.P., member of the Board of Directors for the American College of Emergency Physicians and Chief Medical Officer for the Emergency Medical Services System for Metropolitan Oklahoma City & Tulsa.
Here’s hoping that you don’t have to follow his advice, but it’s here for you in the unfortunate case that you do.
What happens when a rubber bullet hits the human body?
This depends on several key factors: the composition and shape of the projectile itself, the distance between the person impacted by the bullet and from where it was fired, and whether the impact was a direct hit or a ricochet hit.
You see, rubber bullets are intended to be fired at the ground first, and then hit a person to modify the behavior that was of concern to the law enforcement officer, says Goodloe.
“So it really is designed to be aimed in a ricochet manner, directed at a non-critical area—the upper leg, thigh, or around someone’s hip,” he says.
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Most commonly the projectile will have a blunt head (shaped more like a rubber cork than an actual pointed bullet), be fired in the manner intended, at a distance intended. If these conditions are met, Goodloe says, then the rubber bullet will temporarily incapacitate the movement of the person it has been fired at.
This said, any changes in the variables previously mentioned—the bullet shape, distance traveled, or direction of the impact—can create more dangerous complications.
“If the strike hits you in the anterior part of your neck, it could cause significant cutting injuries or bruising of the airway. If the strike occurs in your chest, it could cause a deeper injury in chest—a broken rib, a bruised lung. If the strike occurs to the face, it could cause permanent injuries to your vision,” says Goodloe. Internal bleeding and damage to organs are other potential injuries.
In summary, when the unpredictability of rubber bullets meets the unpredictability of a chaotic environment, devastating effects can occur.
What does being hit with a rubber bullet feel like?
“Think about taking a golf ball to your thigh,” says Goodloe. “If you’re just a few feet away, that’s going to hurt a lot. If you’re a few blocks away, and it grazes you, and you’re wearing a thicker fabric, maybe tightly woven denim, you may not have a mark on you.”
What should you do if you’re hit with a rubber bullet?
“Other than for the most minor of injuries, it’s always better to see a professional,” says Goodloe. If you’re hit with a rubber bullet, you will likely know you were hit with a rubber bullet.
Warn others in the area that law enforcement officials are using rubber bullets and seek medical attention promptly.
“It’s important for people to know to call 911, use on-scene EM services, paramedics, and EMTs,” Goodloe says. “They are the local experts on which hospitals have which capabilities so that you can get the care you need for more specialized injuries—eye care, throat specialists, chest care.”
And, on that note: “We’re not there to judge what’s wrong or right. As a physician, I take care of everyone. My role is not to judge someone. My job is to assess injuries and determine how I can best take care of them. That’s part of the oath any physician takes. We want to be a place of safety and refuge.”
If the injury is more minor, take care of it as you would any other contusion, says Goodloe. That means keeping it clean, icing it (a bag of frozen vegetables works just fine, he says), taking Tylenol or ibuprofen, and monitoring it for signs of infection.
What should you do if you see someone hit by a rubber bullet?
Ask them “Are you okay?” If that person took a projectile to the head, check to see if they are dazed, confused, and acting in a normal way. (Ask them what year it is, what month it is, and/or who the president is, suggests Goodloe.)
If the person took a shot to the face or neck, check to see if they’re breathing okay. Projectiles do not usually cause an open injuries or lacerations, but they could, says Goodloe, so check for bleeding. If there is, apply direct pressure. Brisk, spurting, bright-red bleeding requires more direct pressure and a tourniquet.
If they can walk, help them to safety. “It’s much easier and safer for EMTs and paramedics outside of the crowd,” Goodloe says.
If the person is having trouble walking, help them do so, enlisting the help of another if needed.
Once the person effected is in a safe location, determine if you need to call 911 based upon that person’s condition in regards to consciousness, awareness, bleeding, and other potentially dangerous circumstances.
If you choose to call 911, do so yourself, or ask someone else if you’re unable. If asking another, rather than just screaming “I NEED HELP, SOMEONE CALL 911” ask someone to make that call, make eye contact, point at them, and say “I need YOU to call 911 and I need an ambulance.” Make sure they’re engaging in that conversation and understanding what you are saying.
Hopefully, with proper coordination and clarity, help will arrive swiftly.
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