In Praise of Pepper Spray

While a TASER may be a better option at times, pepper spray can be a practical choice. The key is to know when the use of pepper spray is appropriate and will be effective.

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You have many use-of-force options available to you when facing a resistive subject or an aggressive assailant, including control holds, joint manipulation, pressure point strikes and compressions, takedowns, TASERs, batons, and oleoresin capsicum (OC) pepper spray.

Today, many officers have become more comfortable using TASERs than they are using pepper spray, but OC spray remains a viable use-of-force option. While a TASER may be a better option at times, pepper spray can be a practical choice. The key is to know when the use of pepper spray is appropriate and will be effective.

When to Use OC

There have been a number of court cases involving when it is justified to use OC. Many of these focused on the use of pepper spray on passive resisters.

For example, in the following cases, the use of pepper spray was determined to be excessive: Martinez v. New Mexico Department of Public Health, 10th Cir. No. 01-2156 (2002), which involved the use of pepper spray on a handcuffed arrestee who was verbally resistive; Vineyard v. Wilson and Stanfield, 311 F.3d 1340 (11th Cir. 2002), which involved using pepper spray on a verbally abusive arrestee in the back seat of a squad car; and Headwaters v. County of Humboldt, 9th Cir. No. 98-17250 (2000), which involved the use of pepper spray on passively resisting protesters.

As with other use-of-force decisions, reasonableness is based on the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and greatly relies on the decision made by the Supreme Court in the case of Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). According to this case, the amount of force used by the officer(s) must "be reasonably proportionate to the need for that force, which is measured by the severity of the crime, the danger to the officer, and the risk of flight."

Under Graham The use of force is based on what an objectively reasonable officer would do, his or her perception at that moment, and an understanding that officers sometimes need to make instantaneous decisions. We, as officers, have heard many times that the use of force is based on the "totality of circumstance" as well as on the officer's training, knowledge, and experience. This terminology comes from Graham.

Selecting an OC Spray

It's likely that the decision about what OC spray you carry was made above your pay grade. But even if that's true, it's good to know how to evaluate your spray.

OC spray contains capsaicinoids, the ingredient within the pepper plant that causes a burning sensation and inflammation of the mucus membranes. The strength of the pepper spray can be measured in Scoville heat units, major Capsaicinoid rating, and Capsaicin and related Capsaicinoids percentage. Obviously, higher ratings lead to hotter sprays and the increased likelihood of effective use against an assailant.

Spray patterns and consistencies also differ, and they all have advantages and disadvantages. The stream pattern will usually project from a greater distance, but comes out narrowly and you may have more difficulty ensuring accuracy. The cone and fogger pattern has the advantage of covering a wider area, but is more likely to contaminate others, including yourself and other officers. The foam is beneficial because it is less likely to contaminate others; however, your assailant can grab the foam and throw it back at you.

There's no one perfect OC spray for all occassions. So it's important to know the limitations and vulnerabilities of each so you can be prepared to counter them.

Pepper Spray Effects

Exposure to OC spray can cause a strong burning sensation on bare skin, in the tear ducts, and in the mucus membranes of the nose and mouth. So when someone is exposed to pepper spray, the burning sensation can be considered to be a pain-compliance technique. Pepper spray can also be used as a distraction technique, as assailants may involuntarily close their eyes, cover their faces, and possibly go to the ground.

However, the effects of pepper spray on different subjects can be unpredictable. People react differently to pepper spray and some may experience less of an effect and continue to fight or resist the officer or officers. As with any tool, including a handgun, with OC you should also be prepared to use other options, as things do not work every time.

Some special concerns involving the use of pepper spray must be noted. Officers should be aware of the possibility of contaminating bystanders, especially children and the elderly. Children have undeveloped throats and constriction may be more serious. Elderly individuals are more likely to have respiratory disease. This is also a concern if using OC in a hospital. If pepper spray is used in a hospital setting, the foam spray is a better alternative, as this will not enter the building's air ducts.

Officer Tactics

When encountering an active resister or an aggressive assailant and choosing to employ OC, it is important for you to disengage and create distance. The recommended range for pepper spray is three to 10 feet.

You should, when possible, let other officers know you are going to spray. Make an announcement as you would when deploying a TASER by saying "OC" repeatedly.

When spraying with your strong hand, remain in the interview stance with your weak hand up and use a thumb grip. Apply short bursts and aim for the nose. By aiming for the nose, you are likely to expose the eyes, nose, and mouth, which will inflame the mucus membranes of all three areas.

Do your best to control the targeting of the spray. If you use pepper spray at too close a range or continue to expose the arrestee to pepper spray once you've hit the target area, this can increase the chance of nerve damage, corneal burns, and cross contamination.

Once you have exposed the assailant to the spray, it is recommended that you move "off line" from the assailant. This way, if the assailant charges straight ahead, there is a chance that he or she will not be able to see you, and that gives you an advantage.

After spraying a subject, look for the desired response. When assailants respond by closing their eyes, covering their faces, and/or going to ground, take advantage. This is the perfect time for you and your backup officers to gain control of the assailant. Of course, it is always important to give loud, clear commands and repeat them. When someone is exposed to OC spray, he or she is under stress and may not understand or respond to commands immediately.

Obligation for Care

If the assailant is distressed, reassure him or her that the effects of the pepper spray will pass in a calming tone. When possible, take the pepper-sprayed arrestee to another location such as a station or correctional facility for decontamination.

Many times, the scene can become more complicated, depending on others in the area, and the safest strategy is to remove the arrestee from the scene. The arrestee will likely be complaining of pain and/or being unable to see and/or breathe.

You must become the arrestee's guardian by reassuring him or her that he or she will be fine, explaining that you understand the feelings being experienced, and stating that you are taking the arrestee to a location to rinse out the eyes, at which time the arrestee will feel relief.

You have an obligation to reasonably care for the arrestee and should be attentive to any medical issues that result from pepper spray exposure and/or other factors. Such issues include blueness of the lips or nail beds, extreme alcohol and drug intoxication, poor overall color, sudden fatigue or lethargy, paranoia, disorientation, hyper-aggressiveness, hallucination, incoherent speech or shouting, hyperthermia, profuse sweating, and inappropriate clothing (having removed garments). Use your best judgment and common sense and call for medical assistance if uncertain. Finally, as with all use-of-force decisions, know and understand the department's use-of-force policy.

Dr. Michael Schlosser is a retired lieutenant with the Rantoul (IL) Police Department, director of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute, and the Institute's lead control and arrest tactics instructor.

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