STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Lawmakers in California want to restrict the kind of crowd-control weapons that police used at demonstrations last summer. Here's Scott Rodd of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.
SCOTT RODD, BYLINE: Twenty-two-year-old Foucha Coner took to the streets in downtown Sacramento earlier this year for his first-ever protest after seeing a video of George Floyd die in police custody.
FOUCHA CONER: I felt a strong sense of togetherness. People were chanting, going on their knee.
RODD: He also felt conflicted. Coner was training to be an emergency medical technician with the goal of working in law enforcement. It's a profession he always admired. But as a Black American, he also sees racism within the criminal justice system. Sacramento saw widespread property damage that weekend, but Coner maintains he was there to protest peacefully.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through loudspeaker) In the name of the people of the state of California...
RODD: He says the mood changed when police ordered demonstrators to disperse. I was also there to cover the protests and captured the moment officers fired projectiles into the crowd.
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CONER: I got hit. Initially, i thought that my eyelid was blown off. It still - sorry. Do you mind giving me a little...
RODD: Coner still gets choked up talking about the incident six months later. It's unclear what kind of projectile left a gash above his eye that required seven stitches. It could have been a foam bullet, a beanbag round or a flash grenade. Police used these so-called less lethal weapons at racial justice protests in California and across the country, injuring demonstrators and journalists. Their use for general crowd control, like during championship celebrations for professional sports teams, has also raised concern. Now calls for reform are growing. California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez recently introduced a bill to limit police use of projectiles and banned tear gas altogether.
LORENA GONZALEZ: There are a lot of examples we now have of people who are just exercising their First Amendment rights who got caught up in a police action that seemed a little heavy-handed for the situation.
RODD: But the bill faces opposition from California's powerful law enforcement lobby, which helped defeat a similar proposal last year.
DAMON KURTZ: The more that we restrict the ability to use these items, there's less options for officers to take action.
RODD: Damon Kurtz is vice president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California. He says these weapons are effective when protests turn unruly, and they could ultimately save lives.
KURTZ: We want to be able to protect the public. At the same time, we want to make sure our officers are safe doing so. Trying to find that best mix of tactics and equipment is always our goal.
RODD: He adds law enforcement is willing to meet at the negotiating table. Cynthia Burr is a professor at Wayne State University and says efforts to restrict the use of crowd-control weapons spread across the country last year.
CYNTHIA BIR: There's initiatives in at least 10 cities, seven states, including Virginia, Massachusetts, Colorado.
RODD: Some call for bans on items like tear gas, while others look to increase training. Bir says the protests in 2020 offered a unique opportunity for lawmakers to examine use-of-force policies.
BIR: To be honest, this is the first time that we've seen such a widespread use of these rounds in the U.S.
RODD: As the reform debate unfolds, Foucha Coner says he wants to play a role. He's just not sure whether wearing a badge is the answer.
CONER: I don't hate law enforcement, obviously, because I wanted to be part of them. But this needs to change. Is me being part of the law enforcement really helping it change, or is there something more I can do?
RODD: He says it's a question he asks himself every day. For NPR News, I'm Scott Rodd in Sacramento.
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