Brandon Saenz didn’t feel the projectile hit him. He heard a sound — “a boom,” he says — and a moment later he saw blood dotting his shoes and the pavement beneath them.
“‘Whose blood is that?’” Saenz, 26, remembers thinking. “‘Oh, it’s mine.’”
Saenz was walking by a group of peaceful protesters congregating near City Hall on May 30. The protest, which came five days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, was one of hundreds of demonstrations against police brutality taking place across the United States that day. As he approached the group, Saenz was struck by a round of “less-than-lethal” ammunition. Dallas police used these rounds, typically rubber or foam bullets fired from a specially designed launcher, for crowd control that day. While Dallas Police Department policy dictates that these rounds “should never be used to intentionally target the head, neck, face, eyes, or spine,” the round hit Saenz’s left eye.
“I took off down the sidewalk,” Saenz says, “and eventually had to sit down. I was losing so much blood.”
While he waited for an ambulance, Saenz says several protesters gathered around him, wanting to help. But police wanted them to move. A Twitter thread confirms Saenz’s account and shows no officers made an attempt to help him.
“[The police] kept telling us to get out of there, but I needed an ambulance,” Saenz says.
Eventually, one came. As Saenz was being whisked to Baylor University Medical Center, he felt a pain he would later describe as “weird,” like a fire slowly rising inside his head. The fear started rising, too.
“Is my eye still there?” he asked doctors at the hospital.
“We don’t know yet,” they replied, administering pain medicine and an IV. “We’re gonna see.”
After surgery to put metal plates inside his nose and face, Saenz got a full tally of his injuries. His nose was shattered. He lost seven teeth. The left side of his face was fractured, and he lost his left eye. The emotional toll was worse.
“The hardest thing about all of this is my daughter,” Saenz says. “She didn’t want to see me for a while afterwards. It was too scary for her.”
Over the last month, Saenz has struggled to regain any semblance of normalcy. The injury destroyed his life, he says, robbing him of sleep and filling his days with pain. He often wears an eyepatch and is focused on seeking an elusive rest and respite from his pain. On a good night, he gets two hours of sleep. Even those hours, he says, are consumed by nightmares.
“I can still see it happening,” he says. “In my nightmares and my daydreams, I’m getting shot all over again. It’s all I see.”
But Saenz can’t see who shot him. Identifying his shooter and increasing police accountability are two priorities for his lawyer, Daryl Washington, who also represented the family of Botham Jean after Jean was killed by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in 2018.
“What’s been bothering us the most is that the police know he did it,” Washington says. “They know who fired the shot. You basically have a number of individuals conspiring to cover up a crime.”
After the shooting, two members of the department’s public integrity division interviewed Saenz about his wounding. But apart from that meeting, he and Washington say there has been no apology or assurances of accountability from the police department.
“No one from DPD has made a public statement about this,” Washington says. “No one has given Brandon any assurance that the perpetrator is going to be held responsible.”
Washington is tight-lipped about a lawsuit he has filed against the police department on behalf of Saenz, but he says he wants more from the city than a check for Saenz’s hefty medical bills.
“We want an arrest,” he says. “We want [the officer who shot Saenz] to be held responsible for assault, we want the officers who are hiding this crime to be held responsible, too, and we want a Brandon Saenz law passed that bans the use of foam bullets, rubber bullets, whatever you want to call them.”
As calls for police reform continue, more attention has been drawn to so-called “non-lethal” or “less-than-lethal” weaponry. That category of weapons includes Mace, tear gas, flashbang grenades and rubber bullets. Physicians argue that rubber bullets are particularly dangerous, primarily because they can reach the same velocity as a typical bullet.
“When you have a projectile coming out of a barrel at the exact same speed as a bullet and you’re only a couple of feet away, injuries can be catastrophic depending on where it hits,” says Jose Tarrados, a San Francisco-based emergency room doctor who spoke to Medium.
A Dallas police department representative was also unwilling to discuss the Saenz lawsuit, citing pending litigation and “an ongoing investigation.” However, the representative said the department is “currently reviewing our policies as it relates to the use of less-than-lethal force during protests.”
Recently, Washington was part of a legal team that secured a preliminary injunction barring officers from using less-than-lethal ammunition during protests. But the injunction, which went into effect on June 12, will only last 90 days. During that time, police officers can either use verbal warnings or force.
“Unfortunately, we have to use force at some point,” Terrance Hopkins, president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, told The Dallas Morning News. “Now again, the level depends on the person that we’re dealing with. If you simply turn around, put your hands behind your back — OK, you’re good.”
Saenz maintains he was posing no threat to Dallas police officers or any nearby protesters when he was shot on May 30.
“I was just walking,” he says. “That’s all.”
He isn’t alone. A 21-year-old Frisco resident named Vincent Doyle was also struck and injured by a non-lethal round, as was 27-year-old Tasia Williams. Doyle, Williams and Saenz are three of a reported 125 nationwide injuries inflicted by police since police brutality protests began in earnest in late May. That number, provided by Amnesty International, only includes incidents up to June 5 and is probably a mere snapshot of the full scale of officer-inflicted injuries. In nearly all of these cases, victims maintain they were peacefully protesting or, in some cases, simply walking by.
That’s the part that still upsets Saenz, that keeps him awake just as often as the nightmares: He was just walking by. He recently received a $8,000 medical bill, and more surgeries and bills are soon to come. The pain is difficult to manage, despite the medication he takes every day. And while he’s looking forward to receiving a prosthetic eye soon, he has a hard time believing life can ever be close to what it used to be. Even on his good days, he finds his mind stuck in that Saturday afternoon, in the moments before he heard the boom. He strains his memory, trying to capture every detail, trying to picture the officer who cost him his eye. But as hard as he tries, Saenz comes up empty every time.
“I see everything else, but I can’t see them,” he says. “I just want to know who did this.”