U.S. Politics and the Economy

Dum-Dum Bullets

U.S. police are killing people with war-crimes ammunition

By Robert Wells

In 2011, the police force of the Oakland Unified School District shot and killed 20-year-old Raheim Brown. Revisiting the case in 2015, Raheim’s mother Lorianne Davis determined with photographs obtained from the police—and the Oakland Teachers for Mumia determined with material from a California Public Records Act demand—that Raheim Brown had been killed with a fusillade of high-velocity hollow-point Black Talon dum-dum bullets, which are the standard service ammunition of the Oakland Schools police and of virtually every police agency in California and the nation.

The dum-dum bullet is a soft lead slug with a hollow-point and a copper coated base. When it hits, the impact causes the lead to mushroom back over the copper jacket, expanding the bullet to roughly .60-caliber in the first two inches of flesh. This violent expansion, and the extremely high velocity, gives the bullet an explosive effect in the victim.

Not willing to leave bad enough alone, in the 1990s the Winchester Arms Company “enhanced” the dum-dum, running copper strips up the side to the lip of the hollow-point (the soft lead can still be seen down inside.) When this spinning bullet hits, and erupts, it splays into six razor-sharp claws that tear their way through the body. Winchester christened this bullet the “Black Talon;” The New York Times called it “the razor-fingered bullet” in a November 13, 1993, editorial.

Cops estimate that 99 percent—that is, all—of the police agencies in the U.S. use the high-velocity half-jacketed hollow-point dum-dum bullet as their standard handgun ammunition.

Virtually every person shot to death by police handguns in the U.S. in the last 20 years has been killed with a bullet that international law has declared to be a war crime.

In the 1960s, most of the police agencies in Los Angeles County used the dum-dum; by now they essentially all do. As the chief surgeon of the jail ward, Dr. Margaret McCarren of the L.A. County-USC Medical Center had more experience at the time with gunshot victims of high-velocity dum-dums than any other doctor in the country.

“In my experience,” she wrote in 1969, “the type of wounds caused by these bullets is definitely more severe and represents a radical change from the type of wound inflicted by the old type bullet. The high-velocity hollow-point bullet shatters the flesh.”

She compared the effect of the dum-dum to “an explosive charge going off inside the victim’s body.” A doctor in New York State who performed an autopsy on a dum-dum victim said the internal shock had been so great that it was impossible to distinguish one organ from another.

It was the “shattering of flesh” that Dr. McCarren referred to, the gross physical destruction caused by the dum-dum, that led to the bullet being banned in international warfare.

The dum-dum gets its name from the old British arsenal in the Dum Dum suburb of Calcutta, where in the 1850s the noses of bullets were clipped off to make them expand. By 1874, the Declaration of Brussels had prohibited the use in warfare of “weapons, projectiles or substances calculated to cause superfluous injuries.”

At the Hague Conference of 1899, a declaration was adopted stating that “the contracting parties agree to abstain from the use of bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core, or is pierced with incisions”—the classic dum-dum, used by police everywhere in the United States.

After ratification by Congress, the Hague Declaration was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, becoming part of the United States Statutes at Large (61st Congress, 36 Stat. 2277).

In the 1960s, when the dum-dum bullet first came on the market in pistol calibers, cops everywhere considered themselves to be at war with the Black community: The COINTELPRO campaign, directed from the very highest levels of American government, was an actual shooting war against Black people.

Nevertheless, even while admitting that the dum-dum bullet was an international war crime, police agencies all across the country rushed to adopt it as their standard service ammunition, with the excuse that there was nothing illegal about it domestically.

Even so, they tried to keep it quiet. “This is a tough subject,” said one manufacturer. “A lot of minority groups might object. We like to keep the discussion within law-enforcement circles.”

Police resist the word “dum-dum” because they know it’s a term of revulsion to most Americans. But any high-velocity, soft-nose, half-jacketed hollow-point bullet designed to expand or flatten easily in the human body is exactly the bullet condemned for use against human beings by international law. It’s a dum-dum.

The police rationale for using the dum-dum is that it’s “safer”—it will not “exit a suspect” and go on to hit an “innocent civilian.” It’s doubtful this was much of a problem even in the ’60s, but today, with the six-shot police revolver replaced by the semiautomatic sidearm with a clip holding 15 or more bullets, police shooting doctrine is now to unload dozens of rounds at a time at a suspect.

Amadou Diallo was killed in New York with 19 bullets—police shot at him 44 times; in 2010 Stockton police killed James Rivera Jr. with 19 bullets—they shot at him 48 times; in an incident in Queens, police fired 284 times and succeeded in knocking over one civilian; just this August, Stockton police opened up on bank robbers and a hostage with 600 shots. That’s a lot of dum-dum bullets flying around the neighborhood without ever “exiting a suspect.”

The other police rationale, more to the point, is that the dum-dum is more likely to kill. What seems to be another police doctrine, called the same thing everywhere in the country—“bleeding out”—is to leave a gunshot victim unattended on the ground for hours: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Kenneth Harding Jr. in Bayview Hunters Point, Filiberto Ojeda Rios in Puerto Rico.

In fact, the police shooting dum-dum bullets is completely indefensible; there is nothing that can be said about it that could make it legitimate. Once any Black Lives group made certain that their local police used the dum-dum—the odds are 99 to 1; in this state they could use a document demand under the California Public Records Act—it would be a worthwhile reform to campaign to get the bullet out of the policeman’s gun, even while he’s still shooting. Especially while he’s still shooting.

Along with reform is the political question: Cops’ rushing to adopt the dum-dum while in an open state of war against Black America, knowing full well the bullet is a war crime and making excuses, is an example of the vindictive and genocidal attitude of white America toward Black people.

By challenging the police dum-dum, the Black Lives movement could assert, even by implication, that Black people, under assault from racist police and the white supremacist state, should be entitled to at least some of the protections of international law.

Oakland Teachers for Mumia—Jack Gerson, Bob Mandel and Bob Wells, all retired—were among the organizers, along with teacher Craig Gordon, of the controversial 1999 Oakland Schools Teach-in on Mumia Abu-Jamal and the death penalty. Over the summer of 2015, they and Craig Gordon pressured the school district into reinstating an Oakland Unified School District social justice website called “Urban Dreams” that the school administration had taken down because of intimidation by the Fraternal Order of Police and Fox News. As a news reporter in the 1960s, Bob Wells broke the first story about the police dum-dum.

San Francisco Bay View, January 25, 2016