Jumping the Gun

Several bloggers (myself included) keep revisiting the the death of Victoria Snelgrove during the celebrations after the Red Sox victory over the Yankees. It's agreed that she was fired upon by a Boston Police officer with a "less lethal" pepperball gun. What happened after that is still very unclear, yet has ramifications for the future of crowd control in this country.

CodeBlueBlog has done admirable work (groundbreaking, really) on bringing his expertise to bear, and asking key questions that the mainstream media has so far been unable to answer. In one post he writes:

There is NO WAY that the ball itself could directly impact the brain tissue proper and kill her. Instead of proposing direct trauma, you have to ask HOW she died. If your brain gets contused, you don't die as a direct result of the contusion. I've seen people live with car stick shifts (to mention just one of many items seen) rammed through their foreheads into their brains and they lived.

THIS death was probably from hemorrhage of a lacerated carotid artery.

Despite the many unanswered questions surrounding this case, beat writers are coninuing to plagiarize, stereotype, and outright slander ...

Now, Dr. CBB seems to have a lot of experience in this field. I, on the other hand, have a lot of experience sitting at computers. And this week I finally had some spare time to indulge in some online research on this matter. My assessment?

CodeBlueBlog is probably right. BUT. I'd like to reopen the possibility that she died immediately, on the scene. Or at least, ask CBB how he interprets some of the following elements:

1) Eyewitness accounts that when she was fired upon, onlookers immediately thought she had died. Already, we're at a new level of severity from CBB's ocular trauma lit searches involving paintball guns. Granted, reports indicate that she "died hours later." But then there's this account on CBB's web site from a ED professional who claims:

I cared for this woman in the ED at Boston's Brigham and Womens Hospital... The plastic paint/pepperball penetrated her globe, then the orbit and entered her brain. The plastic, bone and pepper detrius was devastating. She never had a chance and we all new her brain damage was catastophic.. long before she went to the ICU. An unlikely injury, maybe, an unlucky one, yes indeed.

Now, the internet can be less than trustworthy, and there's not a lot to back this up. Except, if you google the guy's email handle, we learn 1) he does live near Boston and 2) he's got a hobby. Take it for what it's worth.

2) Accounts of the weapon's power. CodeBlueBlog summarizes his lit search thusly:

My search included ALL injuries to the globe including high pressure pneumatic glue and paint gun injuries, fish gun injuries, projectile injuries by:
Harpoon, Pencil, BB, Pellet, Bullet, Chopstick, Screwdriver, Pacifier, Pen, Arrow, Knife, Ninja star, Fern, Fencing wire... and NONE of these patients died.

It isn't the projectile that matters, it is THE GLOBE. It is just about impossible to kill someone by striking or impaling the globe with ANYTHING -- and that makes sense, doesn't it? The globe is rather exposed and mankind would have died out long ago if this were such a vulnerable spot...

I would argue that it's not the projectile itself, or the globe itself, but the kinetic energy. Obviously I could throw a bullet at someone's eye and they'd be alright (maybe a bit annoyed). But is CBB really arguing that a rifle-fired bullet through the eye can't kill? He's made his lit search available on his site; in doesn't include this:

Mahajna et al. Blunt and penetrating injuries caused by rubber bullets during the Israeli-Arab conflict in October, 2000: a retrospective study. Lancet. 2002 May 25;359(9320):1795-800.

BACKGROUND: Low-velocity rubber bullets were used by Israeli police to control riots by Israeli-Arabs in early October, 2000. We aimed to establish the factors that contribute to severity of blunt and penetrating injuries caused by these missiles. ... FINDINGS: 151 males and one female (age range 11-59 years) were included in the study, in whom 201 proven injuries by rubber bullets were detected. Injuries were distributed randomly over the body surface ... Severity of injury was dependent on ballistic features of the bullet, firing range, and anatomic site of impact. Two casualties died after a penetrating ocular injury into the brain and one died as a result of postoperative aspiration after a knee injury. INTERPRETATION: Resistance of the body surface at the site of impact (elastic limit) is the important factor that ascertains whether a blunt or penetrating injury is inflicted and its severity...

I know, it's Lancet. But still: the paper goes on to describe low-velocity as 130 m/s, a fair bit faster than the speed of the Boston Police FN303 pepperball gun.

Three people died of their injuries: one after a severe penetrating ocular injury into the sphenoid sinus; the second as a result of severe diffuse brain damage caused by penetrating ocular injury; and the third as a result of postoperative aspiration...

Now, the RCC-95 rubber bullets in question are far heavier than anything we're talking about (48 grams that splits into three components upon discharge -- 16g each?) and traveling at speeds faster than paintball guns and the FN303 missiles.

What was fired at Snelgrove? What I've heard reported is: it was a plastic-cased fin-stabilized pepperball with a mass of 8.5 grams.

Here's a table I made showing the relative energies of paintballs, pepperballs, and rubber and real bullets, with their guns (and I'm throwing in a 95 mph fastball for comparison):

weaponprojectile mass (grams)velocity (m/s)KE (J)
paintball gun38010

So, if the specs are true, the KE of the Boston Police's FN303 pepperball gun fall an order of magnitude short of a handgun bullet, and well short of a MLB fastball or potentially lethal rubber bullet. The FN 303 is, however, several times more energetic than the paintball guns CBB and others commonly compare them to.

I'd really like to reconcile the physics, however, with some of these eyewitness reports. We have one account that that a pepperball blew through someone's cheek. We have that sketchy comment on CBB's site from someone at the Brigham ED. And we have bystanders quoted as saying Snelgrove went down, motionless, immediately. Is any of this consistent with reports about paintball injuries, or projectiles with 35 joules of kinetic energy?

I'm forced to wonder if the Boston Police pepperball gun had a faster muzzle velocity than the FN303 advertised on the web.