Pepper spray – safety training in oleoresin capsicum sprays – includes related article on the use of the spray
Monty B. Jett
Many people have experienced the fiery sensation of biting into a cayenne pepper. It can bring tears to the eyes and send the unlucky diner gulping for water to douse the flaming taste buds. In recent years, oleoresin capsicum (OC) sprays have harnessed the pepper’s potent powers and provided a useful tool for the police to use in subduing violent subjects. However, with the increased use of OC sprays by law enforcement agencies, questions about their safety continue to surface.
One of the main concerns revolves around more than 30 in-custody deaths in which an officer’s use of OC spray to subdue a violent individual allegedly contributed to the death. These deaths have prompted many departments to reevaluate their use of OC spray.
Two studies of in-custody deaths involving OC spray identified several common factors in those incidents. In addition to understanding these factors, administrators and trainers in departments that use or plan to use OC spray need to know what such sprays contain, how they work, and how and when to use them. With this information, they can devise training programs that will enable officers to use OC spray safely and effectively.
STUDIES OF IN-CUSTODY DEATHS
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the FBI conducted separate studies of in-custody deaths in which OC spray was used to subdue a subject.(1) Both studies reviewed the law enforcement agencies’ incident reports and the coroner or medical examiner’s reports, including investigative reports, autopsy reports, toxicological information, and conclusions as to the causes of the deaths. They also compared all cases to determine common factors, if any. Of the 32 deaths reported at the time of the studies, the IACP could draw conclusions in only 22 of the cases and the FBI in only 30 cases due to insufficient information.
The studies revealed no specific evidence that OC caused or contributed significantly to any of these deaths. However, the subjects who died, all of whom were male, possessed some or all of the following features:
* Large stature
* Bizarre behavior due to psychotic delusional, agitated, or stimulant-drug induced mental states
* Occult (hidden) heart disease
* Failure to be subdued by OC spray
* Involvement in a struggle or other violent or high-exertion activity.
Many of the subjects were restrained in positions of possible respiratory compromise, such as prone, hog-tied, or tightly strapped. Often, they died quietly during transport to jail or to the hospital.
Given these observations, if a subject displays drug- or alcohol-induced behavior, officers should be cautious in using OC spray and should consider other tactics for making the arrest. If OC is used, officers must ensure that the subject stays in an upright position with a clear airway to avoid possible positional asphyxiation, which occurs when the position of the body interferes with a person’s ability to breathe.(2) Officers also must exercise extreme caution if combative subjects must be hog-tied following exposure to OC, quickly getting them off their stomachs and never leaving them unattended.
With these cautions in mind, administrators and trainers should examine the products and procedures they use and develop appropriate policy and instruction to guide officers in the safe use of OC spray. To reduce the chances of injury or death related to OC spray, officers must become knowledgeable about the spray’s contents, the appropriate context for its use, and the proper care of individuals exposed to OC.
CONTENTS OF OC SPRAY
Oleoresin capsicum is a natural derivative of the cayenne, or hot, pepper. Heat generated by OC is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Spice companies have used this rating system for years to gauge the potency of spices. OC sprays can vary from 500,000 to 2 million SHUs. The FBI uses a spray rated at 1.5 million SHUs.
OC sprays rely on propellants to dispense their contents. Most sprays contain carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or isobutane propellants. In addition, the OC can be suspended in a water or alcohol solution. Water-based sprays are nonflammable. However, alcohol-based sprays present a potential fire hazard if sprayed directly into a flame or if used in tandem with electrical devices, such as tasers or stun guns.(3)
Law enforcement agencies should know the contents of the spray they use. An agency representative should contact the manufacturer and ask for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). The MSDS lists information about the spray, including the product name, chemical name, chemical family, materials contained in the spray unit, and known hazards. All OC sprays should have an MSDS. If the manufacturer claims that no MSDS exists or refuses to provide one, that spray should not be used.
For OC spray to affect a subject, it must be dispensed directly into the subject’s eyes and nose. The oleoresin capsicum can trigger several physical reactions, mainly in the eyes and the respiratory system.
On contact with OC, the subject’s eyes will fill with tears (referred to as lacrimating) and close involuntarily (blepharospasm). The subject will feel a burning sensation, and the capillaries in the eyes will dilate, causing a bloodshot appearance.
If the subject inhales the spray, the lining of the throat can swell, restricting breathing, and the larynx can be paralyzed temporarily. This induces uncontrollable choking, gagging, and gasping for breath, conditions exacerbated by burning and swelling of the mucous membrane, causing intense mucous flow.
In addition, skin exposed to OC spray can become inflamed. Subjects also might experience a loss of coordination. Temporary loss of vision might cause some subjects to lose their balance and fall to the ground. They might fall to their knees and try to rub the OC out of their eyes, or they might begin swinging wildly.
Only a direct spray with OC causes these effects. Individuals indirectly exposed usually only experience difficulty breathing and a burning sensation on exposed skin.
Before issuing OC spray, departments need to establish written policy and procedures governing its use. It is the department’s responsibility to ensure that officers know how and when to use OC spray.
Part of determining when to use the spray hinges on where it fits in the department’s use-of-force continuum. Use-of-force models abound. Some contain only five levels: command presence, verbalization, physical contact, hand-held impact weapons, and lethal force. Others are more complex. In any case, departments should decide where to position OC in their force continuum.
When OC entered widespread use, many departments placed it between verbalization and physical contact, reasoning that this might increase officer safety by minimizing contact with unruly individuals who could be infected with the HIV or hepatitis B viruses. Some legal advisors categorize OC spray as a pain compliance technique that should be positioned between physical contact and impact weapons. Other departments believe that the use of impact weapons could be discontinued with the use of OC. However, because OC spray does not affect all subjects, departments should consider it another tool that might reduce the use of impact weapons, but not replace them.
Perhaps it would be better to make physical contact, OC spray, and impact weapons congruent options from which officers can choose after command presence and verbalization fail to obtain a subject’s compliance. Officers could use discretion in choosing a force option based on their physical abilities, personal assessment of the risk to themselves and the subject, and relevant departmental policies. No matter what use-of-force continuum a department adopts, officers must know precisely what force options are available and when to use them.
One of the most important components of safely using OC spray is caring for individuals who have been affected by it. Officers might be exposed indirectly and will need care similar to that described below for subjects intentionally sprayed with OC.
Get Fresh Air
Subjects should be removed from the contaminated area immediately. Once in fresh air, they should remain upright and be instructed to breathe deeply. Normal breathing should return in a matter of minutes. If the subject has serious difficulty breathing, officers should acquire immediate medical attention at a hospital or from emergency medical technicians. Officers should ask exposed individuals if they suffer from asthma, a condition that exacerbates the effects of OC spray, and advise medical personnel.
Rinse with Water
Officers should help subjects rinse their faces with free-flowing, cool water. (Warm water will intensify the burning sensation.) The flow should be restricted to prevent eye injuries caused by excessive pressure. Water will help normal eye functions return in 10 to 15 minutes. If cool water is not available, officers should roll down the car windows while transporting the subject; the wind will help eye functions return, though not as quickly as water.
Wash with Soap and Water
At the holding facility, officers should provide soap and cool water for removing the OC resins from the subject’s skin. Oil-based soaps should not be used because the oil coats the skin, sealing in the OC. Likewise, salves and creams should be avoided. The burning sensation on the skin should subside in approximately 1 hour, sometimes longer for fair-skinned people. The sensation is uncomfortable, but not life-threatening.
Monitor Subject’s Condition
An exposed subject must not be left unattended at any time. Officers should remain in constant contact to ensure safe recovery from the OC. They should check the subject’s upper chest area for residue from the spray and, if any is present, they should remove and replace the contaminated clothing. Residue in the garments could cause the subject to have difficulty breathing. Again, officers should obtain immediate medical attention for subjects who continue to have trouble breathing.
If the exposed subject wears contact lenses, OC spray should not damage the lenses or the eyes. Nevertheless, officers should provide subjects with the means to clean the contact lenses once they reach the holding facility.
In addition to asthma, other preexisting medical conditions, such as heart disease or other respiratory conditions, might affect a subject’s recovery from OC spray. If officers learn of such conditions, they should get appropriate medical treatment and continue to monitor the subject closely. Under no circumstances should the subject be left alone.
When officers take a subject to a holding facility, they should inform personnel there of the subject’s exposure to OC spray. The subject will need to be monitored for 45 minutes to 1 hour, in which time the effects of the OC should dissipate.
Every department using OC spray should develop its own training program. To begin, trainers can receive formal instruction from other agencies or from OC manufacturers and then create a department-specific program in accordance with their agency’s policy and procedures. Trainers should try to attend a course offered by the manufacturer of the spray the department uses; however, if such a program is not available, trainers can attend generic OC training and instructor programs, which are offered around the country.
Trainers should convey complete information about the spray, including
* the propellant and other ingredients
* delivery system (cone-shaped mist, stream, splatter/droplet, or fog)
* safety features of the container.
Information about effective spray distance and patterns also is important. These spray factors are affected by
* the size and shape of the nozzle’s orifice
* the amount of pressure in the container
* the container’s size
* the concentration of OC suspended in the solution
* the SHU rating.
Most OC spray manufacturers produce a variety of cannister sizes for different situations. Trainers should be familiar with all cannisters used by their department and should share this information as part of the training program.
Trainers should determine the proper method for carrying the OC unit. Some sprays can be carried safely in a pocket, while others require a holster to prevent accidental discharge. There are pros and cons to whether the spray should be carried on the weak side or the strong side and whether it should be drawn and sprayed with the weak or strong hand. The FBI allows agents to carry the unit on either side but requires them to draw and spray it with the weak hand for several reasons:
* While in a bladed interview stance, the weak hand can be extended fully to minimize the distance between the OC unit and the subject’s face
* The strong hand is free to control a weapon or deliver a strong blow, if necessary
* An interview stance allows mobility to spray and move to avoid the subject
* Fully extending the strong hand for spraying might expose an unprotected weapon to the subject.
After considering the pros and cons of each of these issues, trainers should devise instruction in accordance with departmental policy and training doctrine.
Instructors should emphasize that OC only works properly if it is sprayed into the subject’s eyes or nose. Aiming in the general direction of the subject will not suffice. To be most effective, the OC unit should be sprayed within 2 to 3 feet of the subject. Trainers should determine whether the delivery system also requires a minimum distance from the subject to prevent injury to the eyes. When spraying an OC unit, officers should be aware of wind direction to avoid spraying themselves. The OC unit should be sprayed in controlled bursts of 1/2 to 2 seconds, continuing until the subject complies with officers’ orders or until another form of force is needed. Trainers should remind officers that as soon as the subject complies, the spraying stops.
When cuffing subjects who have been sprayed, officers should take care to avoid being contaminated by the OC residue. Once the subject is in custody, aftercare should begin immediately, applying the previously described regimen of fresh air, freeflowing cold water, soap-and-water cleanup, and vigilant monitoring during recovery. It is critical that instructors thoroughly cover aftercare and emphasize it repeatedly during officer training.
Before issuing OC spray to their officers, departments should establish a method for documenting the training provided and all instances of OC use. This usually means devising a standard form and creating a central file or using the department’s chemical agents file to retain the information. Documentation can be invaluable in court or for responding to excessive use-of-force complaints. During initial training, officers should learn what form to use, how to complete it, and where to submit it.
Additional Training Points
A good OC spray training course should take 2 to 3 hours. Trainers should alert officers to a number of additional issues during the training program.
* OC spray is more effective on a wider range of people and animals than CN (chloroacetophenone) or CS (orthochlorobenzalmalononitrile) gases
* If possible, officers should give a verbal warning that they are using OC in order to alert other officers to possible indirect contamination
* Neither OC nor any chemical agent may be carried aboard passenger aircraft
* Officers always should testspray a new OC unit to ensure that it works properly
* OC units should not be left in a car; direct sunlight can elevate interior temperatures to more than 100 [degrees] F, causing the unit to release its contents and contaminate the entire vehicle
* For safety reasons, the OC unit should be treated like a firearm and kept out of the reach of children.
The question of whether officers should be exposed to OC spray during training has been hotly debated in recent years. Opponents of mandatory exposure often reason that they do not have to be shot to understand the effects of a firearm, so they need not be sprayed to understand the effects of OC. Each department must resolve this issue for itself.
The rationale for requiring exposure is multifaceted. First, exposure builds confidence in the effectiveness of OC spray. Experiencing the effects of the spray also helps officers understand an exposed person’s behavior and the need for prompt aftercare. Moreover, exposure during training forces officers to experience what might happen if they are sprayed with OC. Then, if officers use deadly force in response to being threatened or sprayed with OC, they can articulate in court why they chose that option. If they have been exposed to OC during training, they likely will have a more solid defense.
The FBI requires all persons authorized to carry OC spray to be exposed to it, however, the agency does not mandate carrying OC spray. The FBI’s training program requires OC exposure to occur only once.
Periodic refresher training should be conducted at firearms qualification sessions or roll calls. Refreshers should address any updated product information, pertinent policies, use-of-force issues, proper carry and spray techniques, and documentation of OC use.
OC spray is neither appropriate nor effective in every situation. The goal is to provide officers a means to make arrests with the least danger to themselves, the subjects, and bystanders. With carefully considered policies, thorough initial training, and regular refresher training, law enforcement agencies confidently can add oleoresin capsicum spray to the range of force options available to their officers.
(1) John Granfield, Jami Onnen, and Charles S. Petty, M.D., “Pepper Spray and In-Custody Deaths,” Executive Brief, 1ACP, Alexandria, VA, March 1994; and Monty B. Jett, “Review of In-Custody Deaths Consensus Statements,” OC Seminar, FBI Firearms Training Unit, Quantico, VA, September !994.
(2) Donald T. Reay, “Suspect Restraint and Sudden Death,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1996, 22.
(3) The OC used by the FBI is suspended in alcohol. The agency conducted flammability tests on its spray after a 1991 incident involving the New York City Police Department in which an alcohol-based spray used on a barricaded subject in conjunction with a taser set the subject on fire. The tests revealed that the smallest flame able to ignite the alcohol-based OC spray was a butane lighter; cigarettes would not ignite the spray. See Monty B. Jett, “Flammability Test,” unpublished internal report, Firearms Training Unit, FBI Academy, Quantico, VA, 1991.
RELATED ARTICLE: Confronting Subjects Armed with OC Spray
Officers who come into contact with a subject armed with OC spray first should distance themselves from the subject to avoid the spray. Most units spray only 15 feet; larger delivery systems reach 20 to 25 feet. After reaching a safe distance, officers should order the subject to drop the OC unit. They might need to retreat and wait for backup, or, if retreat is not an option, the officers must decide whether being exposed to OC by the subject poses a threat to their lives or the lives of others and take appropriate action.
If sprayed with OC, officers must control their reactions and focus on retaining their weapons. They might need to take other courses of action, depending on threat assessment and departmental policy.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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