Pepper spray. Smoke grenades. Semi-automatic pepper ball launchers.

These items are just a few of the less-lethal pieces of equipment the Denver Police Department (DPD) has purchased in 2020, according to a list of protest-related expenditures the Department of Public Safety (DOS) provided 5280. Spending on these items, which includes all less-lethal projectiles, launchers, foggers, and chemical weapons on the list, reached $273,189.20—a 983 percent increase over all of 2019, when DPD spent $25,210.50 on similar equipment.

Some of the department’s supply of less-lethal items had expired, says Sonny Jackson, director of communications for DPD. “We were replenishing the stock of what we had previously,” he says.

The use of less-lethal equipment during the Black Lives Matter protests in Denver has become a contentious—and litigious—issue. “Some of these less-lethal items have been used inappropriately,” says Black Lives Matter 5280 member Apryl Alexander, who is also a professor at the University of Denver. “And we’ve seen that they can lead to lasting damage.”

Alexander says she was hit by a chemical agent—she’s not sure if it was pepper spray or tear gas—while protesting on the state Capitol steps on May 28, the first day of protests in Denver following the death of George Floyd. Alexander claims she did not hear officers order the crowd to disperse before they fired the chemical agent. She ran into an alley to escape, but her face and throat began to burn. The sensation worsened until she reached individuals with milk, who poured it on her face. Though the intensity subsided, Alexander felt pain on her face for several days.

Other injuries have been more permanent. The Denver Post reported on a man left blind in one eye after a DPD officer fired a projectile from the back of a truck (the surgeon who operated on him claimed his injuries were consistent with that of a rubber bullet). According to the list of purchased items, DPD has spent $13,605 on rubber balls in 2020 and $13,052.50 on sponge rounds, high-speed projectiles with plastic bodies and sponge noses typically used for crowd control.

Jackson told 5280 that he is unable to comment on accusations of misuse of force. “Less-lethal [force] was basically brought about so there was not hands-on, physical force,” he says. “Originally, before less-lethal came around, police were using nightsticks and things of that nature. And less lethal was an option that did not cause such bodily harm.”

In terms of less-lethal expenditures, the department has spent the most in 2020 (a total of $158,995) on LiveX PepperBalls, projectiles filled with PAVA pepper powder that releases upon impact. The chemical irritant can cause incapacitating coughing and a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, throat and skin, according to Less Lethal Products, the largest authorized PepperBall stocking distributor in the United States.

The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit on June 25 against the City and County of Denver on behalf of Black Lives Matter 5280 and others plaintiffs allegedly injured by police during the protests, including Alexander. The lawsuit claims the use of tear gas and less-lethal weapons violated the protesters’ First and Fourth Amendment rights. It also cites a 2017 study funded by the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative, which found that of 1,984 people struck by rubber and plastic bullets, 53 died from their injuries and 300 ended up with serious disabilities.

On June 5, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order against DPD that ordered officers to stop using chemical weapons and projectiles against peaceful protesters. “I’m concerned this show of force will deter people from exercising their right to protest,” Alexander says. “We’ve received messages from family members whose kids wanted to protest, but they didn’t feel safe because chemical agents were being used. These protests are about police excessive force. We shouldn’t be spending taxpayer dollars on items that lead to excessive force. We should be eliminating them.”

According to a July 13 email to 5280 from Doug Schepman, a member of DPD’s media relations unit, Denver Police Internal Affairs, with oversight from the Office of the Independent Monitor, is conducting 87 investigations into officer behavior during the protests. “Because these investigations are ongoing, it would be inappropriate for the department to comment on the incidents,” Schepman wrote.

Expenditures on less-lethal items pale in comparison to the total spent by DPD during the BLM protests. Between May 28 and June 19, DPD spent an estimated $2,675,570.23 during the protests, according to the DOS, much of which it attributes to overtime pay for officers patrolling the protests (a DOS representative notes that some of the less-lethal items were purchased before protesting began).

Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.