A last resort.
An absolute, no-other-choice, people-were-going-to-get-seriously-hurt-or-die type of last resort.
That’s how cities across the state and country need to view the use of tear gas as a tool by police to disperse crowds.
Albany is the latest city to grapple with potentially banning tear gas after it was used last month and during protests a year ago to disperse protesters.
Earlier this week, the Albany Common Council tabled a decision on a proposal to ban the use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Tear gas causes a strong burning sensation in the eyes, throat and lungs, potentially putting at greater risk people suffering from respiratory issues.
It can sting if it gets on your skin, and cannisters can explode if you pick them up. And it can affect those not directly targeted by the gas, such as residents in homes near protests.
Yet even though tear gas was banned internationally as a tool of war in the 1920s, it is legal and common in the U.S. as a non-lethal method for dispersing crowds.
Supporters of tear gas bans argue that tear gas and other aggressive crowd dispersal methods like pepper spray and rubber bullets should not be used at all. Opponents of bans argue that police need this tool to protect themselves and innocent bystanders, and to disperse crowds when they go from peaceful to violent.
They also argue that tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray are preferable to using deadly force.
The problem comes when police abuse tear gas, by using it against peaceful protesters and in situations where alternative means of crowd dispersal have not been attempted and could still be effective.
Amnesty International, the international human rights group, prepared a set of proposed guidelines for its use:
It should not be used on crowds of peaceful protesters; only used to the minimum extent necessary in cases of widespread violence that cannot be addressed by dealing directly with specific violent individuals; only used for dispersing crowds; only used after audible and clear warnings are issued and enough time has passed for the crowd to leave the vicinity; only be used in situations where there are adequate exit points and opportunities for crowds to disperse; never be fired directly at individuals; never be used in confined spaces and never against vulnerable individuals like the elderly and children.
Police also need to develop and train in the use of alternative means of crowd control and dispersal and self-protection.
Despite the tension and conflict it might cause, this is a good and healthy conversation for all communities to have.
Albany isn’t the only city with an issue with tear gas, and it shouldn’t be the only community seeking solutions.