SAN DIEGO — Demonstrators who get out of hand at next week’s biotechnology industry convention could get a blast from the newest weapon in the police department’s arsenal.
The Pepperball launcher is designed to pelt people or the area around them with a marble-sized plastic ball that breaks on impact into a dusty cloud of acrid pepper dust. It can fire six rounds per second but, if used as intended, won’t kill anyone.
San Diego police bought two dozen Pepperball launchers and plan to have them ready for the BIO 2001 convention that opens Sunday, said SWAT team commander Lt. Cesar Solis.
“It gives the officers one more option, rather than resort to something that could be lethal,” Solis said.
Police expect thousands of demonstrators to converge on the San Diego Convention Center and have trained to crack down on those who turn violent.
The biggest concerns are the so-called “black blocs” of masked anarchists who brought mayhem to the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and other gatherings of world leaders.
The Seattle protests turned violent and resulted in more than 600 arrests and $2.5 million in vandalism and property damage.
“There will be the heaviest presence of blue uniforms in downtown San Diego that this city has seen in some time,” police spokesman David Cohen said.
He declined to provide numbers or specifics on tactics.
Officers will move quickly to arrest any demonstrators who block intersections and violate laws and get them off the streets for the duration of the convention, which ends Wednesday.
“We will be very aggressive,” Cohen said. “Our goal is to not let it become a Seattle.”
Police and the manufacturers of the non-lethal weapons credit them with saving lives, but not everyone believes they are harmless. Paul Marini, a political activist from Oakland who demonstrated in Seattle, said nonlethal devices such as Pepperball or beanbag guns can cause injuries if the projectiles hit someone in the eye or other sensitive body part.
“It’s an unholy alliance between pepper spray and the rubber bullet,” said Marini, who works with the Midnight Special Law Collective, an organization that provides assistance to demonstrators.
“What they really are is maiming weapons.”
Officials with Jaycor Tactical Systems Inc., the San Diego company that manufactures Pepperball, said their product is unlikely to cause serious injury.