At Sunday night’s massive protest against the death of George Floyd, El Paso police used tear gas against attendees, as well as a weapon many in the community had not heard of until now, much less experienced: the “beanbag round.”

Beanbag rounds are plastic cartridges about two and a half inches long, stuffed with a cloth bag filled with hundreds of small, lead pellets. When fired from a 12-gauge shotgun, the bags look like tiny socks with cloth tails streaming from them. When one of these bags hits a person, it causes sharp pain and disorientation.

Police for years have been using beanbag rounds. They say they are a “less lethal” way to stop people from hurting themselves and threatening public safety – people involved in attempts ranging from suicide to rioting.

Debris from beanbag rounds was found on Monday at Memorial Park, a day after El Paso police fired the “less-lethal” projectiles at protesters. (Debbie Nathan photo)

On impact, a beanbag round almost always causes a circular, bright red flesh wound, often with bleeding and swelling that spreads for inches. Within hours, a bruise typically appears, and it often lasts for days.

After protestors in El Paso were fired on with beanbag rounds, some posted photos of their flesh wounds and swellings to friends and social media. The police, meanwhile, returned to the sites where they had fired the projectiles, and by late Sunday night, after the park had been cleared, officers were gathering what they called crime-scene evidence, as one EPPD staffer was heard to say on transmissions audible to the public on internet police scanners.

Just after dawn on Monday, according to city parks maintenance workers interviewed, police returned to Memorial to clean the left-overs of their bean-bag assaults of the previous night. Scraps of yellow “crime scene” tape remained, but the sock-like objects were nowhere in sight.

Even so, dozens of tiny, white discs, which had popped out of the cartridges when they were fired, lay on the park’s lawns and streets. And in one grassy area, the police had left several spent cartridges. They had also left small boxes labeled with the name of their contents and the manufacturer. “12 GA Drag Stabilized Round 5 Count,” the boxes read. The manufacturer’s name is Safariland LLC. It’s a munitions company in Wyoming.

Related: Protesters, police trade blame for violence at Memorial Park

Many companies that produce and sell beanbag rounds tout them as a life-saving alternative to the use of actual bullets. But even Safariland issues caveats. “Statistics show that subject’s [sic] are rarely incapacitated after only one deployment” of the cartridges,” the company’s specification sheet for the product notes. “Most encounters require two to three shots placed on the subject.”

The sheet further warns that “It is extremely critical to deploy an accurate round” in order that “serious injuries are minimized.”

The company says that the little tails on the cloth sock improve accuracy by adding to the beanbag what it calls a “drag stabilized design.” But another company, whose less-lethal projectiles are also widely used by police, warns that beanbag rounds are inherently dangerous because they “have potential to create a lot of injury” – and even death.

YouTube video
Video courtesy of Andrea Rivera Figueroa

SDI, a security company based in Massachusetts, warns that beanbag rounds are not designed for accuracy, even when they have “fins,” as the company calls the cloth tails. Nor is there anything in the beanbag round’s design to spread out the traumatic effects of the projectile’s impact when it hits someone.

SDI calls beanbag-round technology “rudimentary.” Their use for riot control can be dangerous, the company adds, because during such confrontations, rioters tend to quickly change their positions: bending down, for instance, to pick up objects to throw at the police. In such situations, “it’s hard to avoid hitting people’s faces or heads,” SDI notes. “A shot in the head can break the nose, neck or skull of the subject.”

SDI makes and markets another product that it claims is more up to date, and safer, for police use. So the company’s desire to sell something new might add a grain of salt to its criticisms of beanbag rounds. But doctors have also expressed concern.

A protester who asked not to be identified suffered this wound to his abdomen from a beanbag round fired by El Paso police Sunday night in Memorial Park.

In 2013 in the British Medical Journal, several Australian surgeons reported on a schizophrenic man with a knife whom police subdued by shooting him with beanbag rounds. He ended up in the hospital, severely injured, with a pierced chest and lung. The doctors did a literature review and found yet another case of a person seriously injured in the chest by a beanbag round, even though it had the same, supposed safety properties as the rounds deployed in El Paso. 

Likewise, a 2019 report by emergency doctors in California focused on another psychotic man who was shot by a beanbag round and ended up in surgery for an entry wound that led to trauma of the tissues surrounding his heart. Also in 2019, a young Hong Kong woman was blinded in one eye after being fired on by police attempting to suppress the leaderless protest movement that erupted last year. Next to the wounded, bleeding woman after she was shot was a beanbag round.

The George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protest in El Paso was a breathtakingly new development for the community. Never in memory had so many people—especially young people—come out, virtually spontaneously and independently of politicians and El Paso’s cultural powers that be, to exercise their First Amendment rights.

The protest started out with inspiring joie de vivre—with loud noise but fine civility. But then, seemingly for no reason, came ceaseless police sirens and an ominous federal helicopter. Then the gas and 12-gauge shotguns with their socks full of lead.

The beanbag rounds might be a place to start thinking about what went wrong. But the beanbags are only a starting point for much deeper analysis.

Debbie Nathan is a longtime freelance journalist specializing in the US-Mexico border, race, and sexual politics.