Police forces across the country train their officers to use pepper spray as one choice in a range of escalating options. The RCMP’s order of response:
1. Officer presence
2. Verbal intervention
3. Soft empty hand (slap, hold or push)
4. Hard empty hand (hit)
5. Aerosols (pepper spray)
6. Impact weapons (batons)
7. Lethal force (firearms)
8. Tactical repositioning (retreat/regroup)
The pictures that accompany its deployment are familiar to anyone who watches TV news: streams of white fog that send demonstrators into retching retreat, pursued by riot police in Darth Vader-like body armour. The physical effects are more difficult to convey: a fierce burning in the eyes and throat, a searing sensation in the lungs that makes every breath a coughing agony. Since the Canadian invention began to supplant tear gas in 1993, organically based pepper spray has become the instrument of choice for riot control— made famous by its use on student protesters at the international Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in Vancouver in 1997. It is a standard part of most beat officers’ kits across North America. By one RCMP estimate, authorities in Canada and the United States use the caustic spray up to 100,000 times a day—although other police sources question that figure.
But some voices are questioning whether pepper spray is truly the safe and effective, “less than lethal” instrument of compliance its advocates avow. The most outspoken critic is the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief in August with a U.S. Federal Court where some environmentalists are suing police who used the spray to break up anti-logging demonstrations in northern California. The ACLU argues that oleoresin capsicum (the active ingredient in the spray, derived from hot pepper plants) is associated with injury to eyes, lungs and nerves. Outside court, ACLU lawyer Margaret Crosby said the organization believes that pepper spray has played a role in dozens of deaths in California alone. Said Crosby: “There needs to be a lot more research into the health consequences of pepper spray, including death.”
In response to such concerns, several Canadian agencies have launched reviews of pepper spray’s effects; a handful have also amended guidelines for its use. In an exhaustive survey of the medical literature on oleoresin capsicum, a consultant to the Calgary Police Service noted last year that the naturally occurring compound is not subject to the same
rigorous safety tests as food or dmgs. Some research, the study found, suggests there may be links between pepper spray and damage to eye membranes, as well as adverse effects on people with existing asthmatic or heart conditions. On the other hand, the report added, “there appears to be no documented incidents where this has occurred.” Rejecting the conclusions of the ACLU, it said, “pepper spray was not identified as the cause of death in any of the cases.” That is not to say that pepper spray is benign—or that it has never contributed to a fatality. Oleoresin capsicum works by hyper-stimulating pain transmitters and receptors in the sensory nervous system, a powerful biological mechanism that some researchers say could, in acute cases, cause permanent nerve damage. Moreover, inquest juries and other investigators have identified pepper spray as at least a contributing factor in a number of fatalities. One was the September, 1995, death of a 26-year-old psychotic, Zdravko Pukec, in Whitby, Ont. Prompted by its own review of the medical literature, the Alberta Law Enforcement Review Board (that
province’s agency for settling complaints against police) issued new rules in March, 1998, prohibiting officers from using pepper spray “against a subject who [the officer] knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is suffering from a serious breathing disorder or respiratory ailment.”
But how is a cop to know that? In the vast majority of cases, police use the spray to subdue people who are hostile, agitated and resisting arrest. Often they are psychotic, intoxicated or both; there is seldom time to review the subject’s medical history. Police insist that despite its risks, pepper spray is less hazardous than other options: batons or, in extreme cases, firearms.
Meanwhile, the alternative to using the burning spray was grimly dramatized in Vancouver just 11 days before Christmas. Attacked by a deranged, cleaver-wielding man in a hotel hallway, police officers shot him in the stomach. Fie later died. Whatever its effects, few would argue that pepper spray presents as much danger as a half-ounce, hollowpoint police bullet.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.