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US: 113 federal agents in Portland said to be injured by protesters' lasers; none were permanently blinded

Federal officers incurred 113 eye injuries during protests in Portland, according to Senate testimony from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official.

All officers recovered their sight, according to deputy director Ken Cuccinelli, speaking on August 4 2020. This appears to include the "three officers who currently have eye injuries and [who] may not recover sight." This statement was said on July 21 2020 by a Federal Protective Services official. (FPS is a division of DHS.) Some persons who repeated this, such as the White House press secretary and the Attorney General, repeated the "may not" qualifier, while others — generally news or commentators — said flatly that officers were permanently blinded.

Cuccinelli said "We've had a number of officers who have days-long blindness. So far they've all come back, if you will. But you also get what's called flash blindness … where you can't quite see your entire field of vision for a period." [As explained below, flash blindness is not an "eye injury" and should not have been included in the total of 113 "eye injuries.]

Cuccinelli told the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution that protesters began aiming at police from closer distances. Since laser beams spread out, this reduces the spread and thus increases the hazard potential. Protesters do this, he said, so police cannot identify suspects.

2020-08-04 DHS Senate hearing commercial grade laser CSPAN squashed


Cuccinelli demonstrated what he called a "commercial grade" laser by aiming it into his hand. He said such a laser could be purchased on Amazon.com.

During his testimony Cuccinelli stated there were at least 277 injuries to approximately 140 federal agents at the Portland federal courthouse. Of these, 113 were eye injuries (the most common), followed by noise injuries and injuries caused by contact with an object.

From the New York Post and the Portland Tribune. Also see our first story about the July 21 "three officers may be blinded" statement, and our page about Laser use during protests.


COMMENTARY FROM LASERPOINTERSAFETY.COM

It is certainly worrisome that such a large number of eye effects and injuries were reported. As discussed in depth on our "Laser use during protests" page, no one should aim a laser at anyone's eyes or head — not even in a protest situation.

On the other hand it is a relief that three injuries, said on July 21 to possibly be permanent, appear not to have had permanent effects. As Cuccinelli testified,"So far they've all come back, if you will."

IS FLASH BLINDNESS AN INJURY? NO.

Cuccinelli incorrectly seems to be including flash blindness as an "injury" in his list of 113. He correctly described flash blindness as being like "the old Kodak cameras where you get that blue spot" from the camera flash.

Laser flash blindness is essentially the same mechanism. Bright laser light causes a bright temporary spot with an afterimage that gradually fades away. The fading may take seconds, minutes or hours — but just like with an ordinary camera flash, it does fade, causing no permanent injury.

No one has ever said that a camera flash causes an eye injury. Therefore, the list of 113 injuries should NOT include camera flash-type temporary flash blindness.

Laser safety experts agree. Afterimages are not injuries since they are caused by saturation of rhodopsin or "bleaching" in the outer segments of photoreceptors that results in a localized reduced sensitivity for a time. In contrast, an injury results in a minimally visible lesion which histologically involves the retinal pigmented epithelium and the photoreceptors.

It is not known how many of the 113 stated "eye injuries" were flash blindness or similar (e.g., not actual injuries).

DOES AMAZON.COM SELL THESE? YES.

Cuccinelli said high powered lasers were available for sale at Amazon.com.

We conducted a search of Amazon's U.S. website on the evening of August 4 2020. The search term "high power laser pointer" turned up at least two listings for lasers that looked like what Cuccinelli demonstrated, both in size and in beam color. The two listings have different brand names (Loyalfire and JCKSY) but appear to be essentially identical, using similar or identical photos. Here is the Loyalfire laser:

2020-08-04 Amazon high powered laser Loyalfire squashed

From the form factor, type of battery, and description ("it can light a match or paper easily"), this laser device is likely substantially over the U.S. FDA limit of 5 milliwatts for a laser to be sold as a "pointer" or for pointing applications.

Amazon's laser policy in the past has been to not sell laser pointers or handheld lasers over 5 mW (e.g., Class 3B or 4). The policy currently is behind a wall so that only Amazon Sellers can see the policy.

The Loyalfire (and JCKSY, and many other lasers at Amazon) appear to violate that policy.

Note that sellers can get around this by avoiding the word "pointer"or "pointing", and by claiming their lasers are less than 5 mW. Yet based on the form factor, batteries, and description ("burning", "cutting") a buyer can suspect or know that the laser is well over 5 mW. As far as we know, Amazon does not test, validate, certify or otherwise screen the actual lasers.

Also, in a larger sense it does not matter too much if Amazon.com stops selling such lasers. They are readily available from many other sites on the Internet, some that specialize only in pointers and handheld lasers.

DID EYE PROTECTION HELP? UNKNOWN.

We have not seen news stories stating whether Cuccinelli testified if officers were using laser eye protection, and if that was effective. On July 10 2020 the Federal Protective Service (a division of the Department of Homeland Security) issued a sole-source contract for 1,000 pairs of Stingerhawk FT-2 Laser Protective Eyewear from Revision Military. It is not known if the glasses were delivered in time to be useful to the officers.

US: Three officers in Portland may be permanently blinded

On July 21 2020, a federal official told a press conference that three federal agents in Portland, Oregon may have been permanently blinded during demonstrations at a federal courthouse.

Claims of eye injuries


Officers were attempting to defend the building. "When [Federal Protective Service] officers responded to put out these fires, glass bottles were thrown and lasers – which can cause permanent blindness – were shined in their eyes. We have three officers who currently have eye injuries and they may not recover sight in those eyes from those laser attacks," said FPS Deputy Director of Operations Richard Cline.

The assertion was repeated on July 24 by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany: "….tragically, three federal officers were likely left permanently blinded by the rioters using lasers pointed directly into their eyes." On July 28, Attorney General William P. Barr, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, wrote in his prepared remarks that "A number of federal officers have been injured, including … three who have suffered serious eye injuries and may be permanently blind."

As of July 28 2020, there was no additional information about the officers' diagnosis or prognosis. [Incidentally, some news sources and commentators have stated flatly that the officers are permanently blind. The fact that there has been only one official statement on the prognosis ("they currently have eye injuries and they may not recover sight") has been lost or ignored.]

[See the August 4 2020 update below where it appears the three officers are OK.]


Reporters noted red, green and purple laser beams aimed at officers through the courthouse doors. At least one person may be charged. According to the Associated Press, "[c]ourt papers in a federal case against a man accused of shining a laser in the eyes of Federal Protective Service agents show that Portland police turned him over to U.S. authorities after federal officers identified him." ProPublica reported that the charging documents said an agent "reported seeing spots in his eyes for 15 minutes after the laser attack.) [As of July 30, LaserPointerSafety.com has not been able to find the filing or any additional information about this case.]

Force authorized against laser attacks


In response, Customs and Border Protection has authorized the use of "less-lethal force" against protesters with lasers. CBP said in a memo that pepper spray balls or beanbag shotguns are allowed because lasers aimed at eyes or through camera lenses are "remarkably dangerous because of their concentrated energy."

Protesters using lasers would first be issued a verbal warning. Then CBP agents targeted would decide whether less-lethal force is justified. The calculation should be based on the crime committed and the level of danger.

“Officers/agents are authorized by law to use objectively reasonable force to effect the arrest and protect against harm to the officer/agent or others,” wrote Charles A. Bishop, who oversees the agency’s law enforcement compliance directorate. “Officers/agents should consider all reasonable tools, tactics and equipment to cease an assault with a handheld laser in accordance with CBP Use of Force Policy and U.S. constitutional standards.”

Bishop said without a threat of serious bodily injury or death, “CBP does not recognize the threat of handheld visible lasers as one that would require a deadly force response.”

Eyewear purchased to defend against lasers


To defend themselves the Federal Protective Service is buying 1,000 pairs of Stingerhawk FT-2 Laser Protective Eyewear from Revision Military. In its sole-source contract document dated July 10 2020, FPS said "readily accessible and affordable" lasers can cause dark spots, hazy vision, headaches or retinal bleeding. The contract also noted that Seattle police officers who used laser-resistant glasses "expressed that they were very effective."

From Fox News (initial blinding report), the New York Post (White House statement), Politico (AG Barr statement), the Associated Press via MSN (court papers), ProPublica (15 minutes of spots), the Washington Times (CBP response), Williamette Week (FPS eyewear)

For more information, see the page
Laser use during protests and LaserPointerSafety.com news articles about non-laser eye injuries during protests.

UPDATE AUGUST 4 2020: The three officers said to possibly have permanent blindness appear to be OK, with their sight recovered. In Senate testimony, a Department of Homeland Security official said there were 113 eye injuries to federal officers in Portland, and "[s]o far they've all kind of come back". The Federal Protective Service is part of DHS, so the official's statement would have included the three injured officers.