By Jeff Shantz
On August 22, Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers shot Chris Amyotte multiple times with beanbag rounds. He died on Hastings Street as police took him into custody.
Mr. Amyotte, an Ojibwa man of the Ditibineya-ziibiing (Rolling River) First Nation, was in crisis after being bear sprayed and was pouring milk on himself to treat the bear spray when police arrived.
Immediately, questions were raised about the police decision to shoot Mr. Amyotte with beanbags—small fabric sacks filled with lead shot fired by a shotgun—when he posed no threat to anyone and simply needed help, according to witnesses.
Also immediately, VPD spokespeople and supporters began making claims about the “less lethal” character of beanbag rounds, several going so far as to claim that no one has been killed by a police-fired beanbag.
These claims, however, are demonstrably false and need to be addressed and need to be dispelled, especially as police continue to make them.
During an August 29 news conference a week after Mr. Amyotte’s death, Sgt. Steve Addison of the VPD confirmed that a beanbag shotgun had been used but went on to claim that it is “a safe and effective less-lethal tool”.
Addison then portrayed the weapon as other than lethal force, saying, “It is used as an alternative to lethal force and can be deployed against a person who is acting violently or displaying assaultive behaviour.”
Never mind that none of the witnesses who have come forward have said that Mr. Amyotte was either violent or assaultive. By all public accounts, he was in distress and seeking help.
The notion that beanbag rounds do not kill was buttressed by former West Vancouver police chief and former B.C. public safety minister Kash Heed. In an interview, Heed described the beanbag round as a less lethal weapon “meant to stun”. He added that he had “never seen someone die solely from being hit by a bean bag round”.
Even more troubling, and combative, assertions came from Tom Stamatakis, the head of the Canadian Police Association, who came up through the VPD. In a social-media post taking exception to news reports about police actions and Mr. Amyotte’s death, Stamatakis said, “More disappointing ‘journalism’. All use of force documented, reported & tracked in BC. No correlation between ‘beanbag’ use & death established♂️”.
But this was itself deceptive. The Independent Investigations Office (IIO), by its own admission, does not, in fact, track beanbag-shotgun use in the province. Because it is not considered a firearm, it is simply lumped within all use-of-force deployments.
Not to be outdone, Ralph Kaisers, president of the Vancouver Police Union and the B.C. Police Association, decided to up the ante more than a week after the killing. Also taking to social media to vent, Kaisers tweeted against still another media outlet: “More dis/misinformation from an activist who wants to be a city councillor. Mr Amyotte’ tragic death was not from being ‘shot’ by police. Bean bags don’t kill people. He was dying well before anyone arrived, as he was in need of immediate medical attention.”
So here we have two high-profile policing figures, both police-association heads at local, provincial, and national levels, stating unequivocally that beanbags do not kill—while also going after local media that were only doing their work as journalists.
Beanbags do kill
That police at high levels are out there claiming publicly that beanbag rounds do not kill—or that there is no evidence of their having killed—is nothing short of mind-boggling. Police have long had access to studies showing that beanbag rounds can be fatal.
In fact, the Asia Pacific Police Conference in 1996 concluded that beanbag weapons were an “unacceptable” method of nonlethal force. This was, in part, related to situational use that did not “produce the optimal result as mentioned by the manufacturer”.
A 2003 study in the Hong Kong Journal of Emergency Medicine that tested beanbag rounds fired into pig carcasses concluded, “Shot to head, neck, thorax, heart, or spine can result in fatal or serious injuries.”
In 2020, the New England Journal of Medicine published a correspondence by physicians at a trauma centre in Austin, Texas, that treated people injured by police during the protests immediately following the police killing of George Floyd. They reported that of eight patients admitted to the hospital with beanbag injuries, seven underwent an operative intervention for their injuries, while fully half of those admitted retained beanbags or components thereof within their bodies.
In 2005, 45-year-old Lester Zachary died after being shot by police with two beanbag rounds in his home in Georgia. Muscogee County coroner James Dunnavant concluded that Zachary died of internal bleeding caused by the projectile hitting his spleen area.
In 2013, Park Forest, Illinois, police officer Craig Taylor was charged with felony reckless conduct for killing John Wrana, a 95-year-old World War II veteran. Mr. Wrana was shot with a beanbag gun at close range.
As recently as 2019, Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old student, was killed when Colombian riot police shot him in the head with a beanbag round during a protest in Bogota.
A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice documented at least five deaths of people shot with beanbags. Even in some cases where the victim was struck by other munitions, it was the beanbag that was determined to have killed them. In one case, the person died as a result of being hit in the neck by a beanbag. In another, a beanbag penetrated the person’s chest and punctured a lung.
Surely this is enough evidence for us to ask why several high-profile policing figures, including two heads of police associations, are publicly stating so emphatically that beanbags do not kill—and even aggressively going after media that are simply raising the possibility. Are they that ill-informed? Are they misleading the public they claim to serve?
Nothing is gained for the community by police defensiveness after a fatal encounter. It is even worse when police don't tell the public the whole story about the weapons that they deploy. If nothing else, it can only serve to inflict even more pain on already grieving families and traumatized community members.
In the aftermath of his death, Chris Amyotte’s family is calling for beanbag rounds to be declared lethal weapons: “Shooting someone with a beanbag gun, and the use of lethal force, can't be the first de-escalation technique employed. Beanbag guns need to be declared firearms or a lethal weapon.” Unlike the vocal local police spokespeople, they are absolutely correct.