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Pepper Spray: "Safety," Pain, Death and Lawsuits

Science Says Pepper Spray Harmful, Cops Thing That's the Reason to Use It

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights organization Amnesty International calls it torture, a New York-based law enforcement training institute calls it "brutal," but a US Federal Judge ruled that the direct application of pepper spray to the eyes of nonviolent protestors is both legal and reasonable. Law enforcement agencies across the continent have become increasingly reliant on the use of this noxious chemical in recent years, though several studies point to its dangerous and potentially lethal health effects.

When Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that the Eureka, California Police acted justly in prying open peaceful protestors' eyes and dousing them with pepper spray (see PPR #16), civil liberties advocates worried that the ruling would give cops a free ticket to torture social justice activists. Unfortunately, they appear to be right. Berkeley's Copwatch Report (February 1999) states that less than a month after the federal ruling, California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) voted to recommend direct application of pepper spray to the eyes of non- violent protestors. Two cops serving on POST's "guideline development committee" were responsible for the forceful eye-swabbing of Earth First! protestors in October 1997. As Berkeley Copwatch has pointed out, these trends are moving politics back to the pre-Civil Rights era when police beat nonviolent protestors with impunity while arresting them. The POST recommendations, they note, effectively abolish the formal distinction between passive resistance and violent resistance. Under its recommendation, police will be justified in meting out the same physical force to a teenager who goes limp at a sit-in as they use in subduing a brutal rapist who attacks police while being taken into custody.

According to the syndicated radio program "Making Contact" (June 30, 1999), pepper spray is 600 times stronger than cayenne pepper.

Meanwhile, the Ottowa police are suing the continent's largest supplier of pepper spray, for reasons more guided by fiscal prudence than human decency. The Ottawa police department and two officers are defendants in a suit filed by a man who was pepper sprayed after police entered his home looking for another man. The plaintiff, Jean-Paul Gravelle, continues to suffer from bronchial asthma and other respiratory ailments as a result of the spraying. The Police have in turn sued Defense Technology Corporation of America, who the police claimed assured them pepper spray was a "safe" product, free from "side effects" (Ottowa Citizen, June 2).

In terms of civilian use, a convicted robber in California who used pepper spray in the comission of a crime was given a "four-level increase" in his sentencing when U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Helen Frye called pepper spray "an instrument capable of inflicting death or serious injury" (Copwatch Report).

Given that the Canadian police and a California judge are now both claiming pepper spray is harmful, it is clear that the continued use of this weapon by police forces constitutes an awareness of its possible effects and a callous disregard for public safety. The American Civil Liberties Union found that police use of pepper spray contributed to at least 40 in-custody deaths in California between 1993 and 1997. Pepper spray is used routinely by the Portland Police and was probably associated with the in-custody deaths of Brian Penton, a young African-American, in May 1998, and the death of Dickie Dow in October 1998.

For more information on pepper spray, see PPR #11, 12, 13, 15 and 16.
Contact Berkeley Copwatch at 2022 Blake, Berkeley, CA 94704

Pepper Spray in the News

-Mike Dubay wrote a medical research paper stating that "in humans, OC [pepper] spray is associated with severe twitching of the eyes, stinging, lacrimation and spasmodic closing of the lids." It can also cause inflammation, loss of reaction to stimuli, loss of sensation, and corneal abrasions. (Berkeley Copwatch Report, February, 1999)

-The Modern Warrior Institute in New York claims that "manufacturers have been misleading in their advertising and the chemical agent is not as effective as they claim, adding that repeated use of the substance, if ineffective, is 'brutal.'" ("Making Contact", June 30,1999--also see PPR #13)

-Lewis Rivera, a homeless man in Miami, Florida was doused with pepper spray and died in police custody in May. While the ACLU of Florida is investigating the possibility that the pepper spray caused his death, the police claim the man was suffering from "alcohol withdrawal" and that pepper spray probably had nothing to do with his death because "he was walking and talking" just before he died. (Miami Herald, June 8, 1999)

-Daniel Ramirez, after being chased by L.A.'s gang task force, was pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and died about thirty minutes later. While police say the bag of drugs found in Ramirez's throat caused his asphyxiation, pepper spray's known effects include the restriction of air passages and probably played no small part in Ramirez's death. (Local Review/LA Times, June 4&9, 1999)

-In Santa Cruz, anti-war activist Steve Argue was beaten and had a pepper spray canister shoved in his mouth, discharged and then sprayed in his eyes after he attempted to stop an officer from separating a woman and her child. Argue was nearly comatose as he lay a 5 minutes' drive from a hospital while police waited an hour to get treatment for him. He was held in solitary for 72 hours. Activists are organizing for Argue's legal defense. (e-mail from Food Not Bombs [sffnb@iww.org], May 28, 1999)

  [People's Police Report]

August, 1999
Also in PPR #18

Chief Moose Cuts Loose, Leaves Mixed Legacy
 • Mayor Asks "What Do You Want in a Chief?"
PPB Shoots at 4; Dow's Killers Awarded
  • Police Lament "Hero" Killer Cops Treated Badly
Eugene Cops Turn Rally into Melee
Oregon Looks at "Driving While Black"
Salem Gets Organized
Review Board Loses Staff Person, Stalls
Two Copwatchers Undergo Mediation w/Police
Deputy Fun Facts (Clackamas, Washington)
Pepper Spray: "Safety," Pain, Death & Lawsuits
Quick Flashes PPR #18:
 • Two Portland Officers Fired for Lying
 • City Ignoring Youth Self-determination
 • Supreme Court OKs Search and Seizure of Passengers
 • Police Snitch Program Draws Heat
 • Tardy Cop Breaks Law
 • Police Cheat on Overtime
 • Iraq Protestors Free, Challenge "Lawful Dispersal" Rule

Updates PPR #18:
 • Gambling West Linn Chief Pleads Guilty
 • Gold Hill Chief Convicted
 • Bend Family Sues
 • Shooter Ex-Cop Strikes Again
 • Police Volunteer Indicted
 • "Grow Light" Store Busted After Filing Suit
 • NYPD Cops Indicted in Diallo Shooting
 • NYPD Officer Admits Sodomizing Louima
 • Millions March for Mumia
 • Copwatch and CUSPR: Organizing for Accountability

Rapping Back #18

Portland Copwatch
PO Box 42456
Portland, OR 97242
(503) 236-3065/ Incident Report Line (503) 321-5120
e-mail: copwatch@portlandcopwatch.org

Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.

People's Police Report #18 Table of Contents
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