Why did the cops do that, part 2: Pepper Spray

21 Nov

There’s been a lot of talk about the use of pepper spray lately, usually in the context of police officer spraying peaceful protesters at one of the Occupy protests.

Here’s an example from Tulsa, Oklahoma, with Keith Olbermann implying that the police use of pepper spray was cowardly:

And another video, from a protest at the University of California-Davis, where a police lieutenant uses a large can of pepper spray on a group of protesters:

I think many people have criticized this use of pepper spray without an understanding of why it is used and what it does. For the purposes of this discussion, the issue of whether or not the protesters should have been allowed to remain is irrelevant. In both instances, police were ordered to evict people from a particular place.

For background, I have been trained in the use of non-lethal/less-lethal force. I have been pepper sprayed and tear-gassed as part of this training, so I know what each feels like, and understand the effects firsthand.

Pepper spray is capsaicin oil suspended in a medium in a pressurized can. Essentially, it is “hot pepper oil”. When sprayed on a person’s face, it can cause pain, force the eyes to tear up and close, and make it difficult to breathe. It can make your eyes run and make you cough. The effects usually start to wear off after 15-20 minutes and are gone within an hour. Many police departments policies provide for a person who has been pepper sprayed to be given a change of clothes and access to water to clean their face off with.

Police have few options when ordered to move people who refuse to be moved. 200 pounds of dead weight is actually pretty difficult to move, and the problem is compounded when dealing with protesters who link arms together or employ other means to remain in place. If you don’t believe me, have a friend go completely limp, and attempt to drag them 100 feet or so. A question I commonly hear is “Why can’t a couple of cops just grab a person and drag them away?”. Well, that might work for one or two people, but the protesters almost always outnumber the cops, and it wouldn’t work at all for protesters who have linked arms together.

So we have a situation where protesters have been ordered by the police to disperse, and are refusing. In the past, doctrine would have had officers charging in with batons, delivering blows until the protesters were too injured to remain in place. Another option is the application of what is known as “pain compliance”, through the use of a minimal amount of physical force. For example, an officer could place the edge of his hand under a protester’s nose, and then lift up. In theory, this will cause enough pain that the person stands up to avoid it, and can then be removed. This can be effective, but can also lead to injuries, both among police and demonstrators. If someone used such a technique on you, you would probably have a hard time remaining peaceful. So, pepper spray is used as a non-physical way of gaining compliance through pain. As an added bonus, people who have been sprayed are incapacitated to a degree, which affects their ability to fight with the police if they were so inclined.

People seem especially outrage that demonstrators are being sprayed in the eyes, or from close range, or that pregnant women or women in their 80’s are being prayed.

Pepper spray is designed to be applied to the face, primarily to the eyes, nose and mouth. Studies have shown that direct exposure to pepper spray does no damage to the eyes. The eyes are generally the most affected by pepper spray, so that’s where it goes.

Pepper spray is generally used within six feet. It’s a liquid spray, so the precise application of it can be tricky. Spraying from closer helps to ensure that it is delivered accurately, and that only the people you intend to spray get sprayed. A good blast of spray has the same affect regardless of distance (i.e., it doesn’t hurt more when done closer). In the video from Tulsa, the police are seen holding a protester’s head while applying the spray. If they didn’t, he could just keep moving his head to prevent the police from delivering the spray effectively.

Pepper spray works the same, and isn’t any more or less effective or dangerous, on pregnant women and old ladies. If you are ordered by the police to disperse or be pepper sprayed, and you refuse to disperse, they aren’t going to spray everyone but you.

Questions and comments are always welcome, and if anyone has way to move protesters that doesn’t involve hurting them, we’re all ears.

Part one of this series, which discusses the police detaining someone who appears to be crazy, can be found here.

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3 Responses to “Why did the cops do that, part 2: Pepper Spray”

  1. Anonymous November 21, 2011 at 4:32 am #

    When you say “studies ave shown” this or that, it would be great to cite which ones. Here's another viewpoint http://blogs.plos.org/speakeasyscience/2011/11/20/about-pepper-spray/#.Tsl0lUCZuk0.twitter

  2. AlertNewEngland November 21, 2011 at 5:06 am #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. AlertNewEngland November 21, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    This, for instance: http://www.iovs.org/content/41/8/2138.full

    I didn't cite studies because the point of the post wasn't really to discuss the relative safety of pepper spray. Departments have found it to be a very safe and effective alternative to physical force, which is why it's included in their doctrine and use of force continuum.

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