LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — A bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine would restrict police departments’ ability to use tear gas. The bill points to short- and long-term health impacts of tear gas and the fact that it’s already heavily regulated in war.
The Lynchburg Police Department used tear gas at two protests last year.
The protest at Fifth and Federal got the most attention, largely because of property damage and the presence of an armed white militia. Under Kaine’s bill, the property damage would have justified the use of gas.
The same might not necessarily be the case for the protest that took place the next night at Miller Park.
“It burns. Bad, and I’m asthmatic,” said Tauri, a Lynchburg resident, after she was tear-gassed at the Miller Park protest. That night, she said she tried to get away but couldn’t escape the tear gas.
“They’ve thrown that much and it’s just, we keep going further down the block, and it’s traveling and it’s just getting stronger and stronger and it sucks.”
In a recent interview with WFXR News, Police Chief Ryan Zuidema defended the use of gas those nights.
“Our choice was not to use gas against residents of the city,” said Zuidema. “Our choice was to use gas against people that were committing a criminal act at that point. These are individuals again we declared an unlawful assembly. We had advised folks if they did not leave they were subject to arrest.”
Protester Mackton Saunders says a so-called “unlawful assembly” doesn’t justify gas.
“It was unnecessary. They threw the tear gas at protestors that were just marching peacefully down the street,” he said. “We had kids out there. That’s just what threw me off. There were kids out there. 12, 13, 14, 15 years old, but you call yourself a police department.”
Kaine’s bill would allow gas to be used to stop violence against people or property damage.
“Tear gas shouldn’t be used against people who are not behaving violently,” said Kaine, “and we’ve allowed as a society kind of a creeping use of tear gas, even against people who are behaving peacefully, and that shouldn’t happen.”
His bill could allow its use at the Fifth and Federal protest, where there was property damage. However, its permissibility at Miller Park is less obvious.
“Miller park presented a lot of challenges too, right,” said Zuidema. “That was a night where we had two of our police officers shot at while they were out of a car.”
No suspects were ever identified in that alleged shooting.
Kaine says that if there’s ever doubt as to whether or not a department was justified in using gas, the prevalence of cell phone footage can help hold departments accountable.