LONDON — Some types of rubber bullets used by police to restrain unruly protesters kill and maim too often to be considered a safe method of crowd control, new research concludes.
Rubber-coated bullets are intended to inflict superficial painful injuries to deter rioters. But a study of their use by Israeli security forces has found police often fire from too close and aim poorly. Even when fired properly, it said, the bullets are so inaccurate that they can cause unintended injuries.
The study, published this week in The Lancet medical journal, examined the effects of rubber-coated bullets used by the Israeli police force during riots by Israeli Arabs in northern and central Israel in early October 2000.
Those bullets are in fact made of metal encased in a rubber shell, and are different from the original rubber bullets first used in 1970 by the British in Northern Ireland.
The British rubber bullets were designed to be fired at the ground so that they would bounce up and hit the legs of demonstrators. They were replaced in 1989 in Northern Ireland by plastic ones because the rubber bullets were judged too dangerous.
Other variations of rubber bullets are used in several countries, including the United States.
These include rubber-coated metal bullets, rubber plugs, plastic bullets called baton rounds, and beanbag rounds — fabric beanbags about the size of a tea bag filled with lead pellets.
Each type has a different effect on the human body under different circumstances.
Mike McBride, editor of Jane’s Police and Security Equipment, said the Israeli findings have no bearing on other types of crowd control ammunition.
“There are lots of different manufacturers out there making lots of different types of riot control projectiles,” McBride said.
Baton rounds, or pure plastic bullets, are used in Northern Ireland today.
They are lighter, faster and more accurate than their rubber predecessors, McBride said.
“They’ve been used 166 times in Northern Ireland, twice in mainland Britain, and there have been no deaths associated with the use of those,” he said.
In the United States, local police make their own decisions on what to use for crowd control, and methods vary across the country.