Plastic bullets fired in recent demonstrations

Police downplays risks despite past deaths and industry spin

The Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) defends the use of plastic bullets by clinging to a number of assumptions that have been challenged by social justice groups, civil liberties associations, and even police reports.

The SPVM fired plastic bullets at protesters during the May 1 anti-capitalist demonstration and on April 20 during protests against Plan Nord, near the Palais des congrès.

Plastic bullets are normally fired from single-shot launchers or multiple-launchers such as the Anti-riot Weapon Enfield, or ARWEN 37.

While The Daily was unable to confirm which type of launcher is normally used by the SPVM, a 2006 document from the École nationale de police du Québec reveals that some officers are trained to use the ARWEN 37.

Single-shot launchers and multiple-launchers like the ARWEN 37 are controversial policing tools.

A 1998 report from the Toronto police states that “numerous deaths” have been attributed to the “improper use of these weapons at close range or unintended strikes to the head [and] neck.”

Police Ordnance Company Inc., which manufactures the ARWEN 37 in Canada, says on its website that the weapon is the first less lethal weapon to combine “lightness, high accuracy and the ability to fire up to 5 shots without reloading.”

However, the Toronto police department expressed doubts in 1998 over the validity of the claims made by manufacturers.  A report compiled by its Public Safety Unit emphasized the lack of accuracy of projectile launchers.

“Accuracy is a problem with this gun,” it reads. “It is acceptably accurate at 7 metres but by 18-20 metres, the weapon suffers greatly.”

According to the Quebec Civil Liberties Union, the inaccuracy of these weapons makes them lethal regardless of the distance between the officer and the target.

“At a distance where the weapon is accurate, the launcher can’t be used because the kinetic impact would be deadly,” a 2002 document read.

“At a distance, where according to the manufacturer the weapon is less deadly, the weapon is inaccurate and becomes lethal,” it continues.

In an interview with The Daily, SPVM Sergeant Laurent Gingras said that police only use plastic ammunition when officers are being “physically assaulted” during crowd control operations.

“We normally use plastic bullets when officers are being kicked or rocks are being thrown at them,” he said.

According to a report by the Quebec Civil Liberties Union, plastic bullets “should not be utilized for crowd control, but only against individuals who pose a serious threat to police.”

The hurling of projectiles at police, it continues, does not constitute a “serious threat.”

“The use of plastic bullets is neither reasonable nor justified because of the risk of injuries and death associated with it,” it said.

Sergeant Gingras said that being hit with a plastic bullet was similar to “getting hit with a good Charlie horse.”

The ammunition used by the SPVM is similar to the M1006, a 40mm “sponge” round used by the US military and law enforcement agencies in the United States.

According to a document obtained from the Washington County Sheriff’s office in the US, a man lost his finger in 2008 after being struck by a sponge round during an altercation with Oregon police., a website that sells the weapon, states on its website that operators must be aware that “incorrect employment of the M1006 can cause lethal trauma.”

The 1998 Toronto police report noted that “many low lethality munitions perform inconsistently.”

“A particular danger is that the advertised velocities of the projectiles are often significantly inaccurate. Rounds that fall below advertised velocities may not incapacitate a subject. Rounds that are significantly faster than advertised may kill,” the report said.

Moreover, the cost of the ARWEN 37 is “prohibitive, each weapon costing several thousand dollars.”

“Ammunition, including that needed for training purposes is also extremely expensive, some costing upwards of $30 per round,” the report continued.

François du Canal, a member of the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality, told The Daily that plastic bullets are “one of the more dangerous so-called ‘non-lethal’ tools of ‘crowd control’ used by police.”

Du Canal said that Éric Laferrière lost his voice because he “received a plastic bullet in his throat during the protests in Quebec City in 2001.”

Philippe Ferraro was killed after being shot by a plastic projectile in 1995, he added.

In the United Kingdom, plastic bullets have killed 17 people between 1972 and 1989. According to a 2011 review of police tactics compiled by the London police, they can be considered to stop “violent attacks on the public,” arson attacks, and when fire and ambulance crews are being threatened.