The Power and Controversy of Pepper Sprays

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by Dave DeWitt

The power of oleoresin capsicum is so great that it has become a popular ingredient in personal defense sprays that have virtually replaced tear gas products such as Mace. The tear gas products had proven to be virtually ineffective against many violent attackers, especially those under the influence of narcotics and alcohol. Additionally, the tear gas products have a fairly long reaction time of three to thirty seconds.

Pepper sprays have a reaction time of one to three seconds, and have been touted as a safe, effective response to attackers. One article in security magazine stated: “One blast of pepper spray will cause respiratory spasms, choking, and temporary closure of the eyes, preventing any further aggressive behavior. It will work against persons under the influence of narcotics and alcohol.” But as we shall see, some of these claims are apparently exaggerated.

Pepper sprays vary considerably in the amount of oleoresin they contain. Manufacturers tout the percentage of oleoresin in their products and make claims that theirs is best because it contains ten percent oleoresin. But, what is the strength of the oleoresin? One manufacturer, BodyGuard, states: “Remember, a spray containing ten percent of 500,000 Scoville Heat Unit oleoresin capsicum is not as effective as a spray containing five percent of 2,000,000 Scoville Heat Unit oleoresin. The more capsaicinoid content the oleoresin has, the hotter and more effective the spray will be.”

Pepper sprays quickly became popular with law enforcement agencies after first being introduced in 1977. By 1990, Time magazine reported that the FBI and more than 1000 agencies were using one spray called CapStun. Generally speaking, the sprays used by law enforcement personnel are five times more powerful than those sold to the general public.

The sprays are quite popular with the public, as evidenced by steadily growing sales. But there has been some backlash. The sprays are now forbidden to be carried about aircraft, and they were banned for personal defense in California until a law permitting their use was passed in 1994. Before then, the only pepper spray permitted in that state was a diluted anti-animal spray called Dog Shield; however, many different sprays were sold illegally in California and are commonly available.

In 1994, the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles claimed to have documented fourteen fatalities involving people who had been sprayed. Alan Parachini, director of public affairs, stated that even if the spray itself was not the cause death, autopsy results showed that it was a factor. He urged the Los Angeles Police Department to curtail its use of pepper spray until more research was done.

But more research had already been done. The International Association of Chiefs of Police examined twenty-two deaths linked to pepper spray and concluded that the spray was not a factor in any of them. They based their estimation on the report of Dr. Charles Petty, a former Dallas County medical examiner, who examined autopsy reports. Most of the deaths resulted from “positional asphyxia,” which means that police had restricted the breathing of suspects while restraining them. Suspects are often hog-tied, forced to lie on their stomachs while their handcuffs and leg shackles are linked behind their backs. Their bellies can be pushed into their chest cavity, which causes suffocation.

The study also brought up questions of the effectiveness of the pepper spray in subduing violent and irrational people. The FBI report, “Chemical Agent Research, Oleoresin Capsicum” concluded that pepper sprays were effective against intoxicated people, and told the story of a large, intoxicated biker who was successfully disabled. “Two agencies reported oleoresin capsicum is frequently used to subdue inmates who were violent and uncontrollable.”

However, the report “Pepper Spray and In-Custody Deaths” referred to by the International Association of Chiefs of Police stated: “In the majority of cases, oleoresin capsicum spray was either ineffective or less than totally effective.” Since drugs or alcohol were involved in most of these cases, the conclusion to be reached is that the pepper spray was unable to subdue the suspects effectively, so the police resorted to forceful procedures that caused the deaths. In addition to “positional asphyxia” other factors in the deaths were cocaine intoxication and excited delirium from the cocaine.

Denver police indicated some doubts about pepper spray in 1990. Officer Marc Frias sprayed a suspect at point-blank range and found the man still standing. “Unless it hits you right in the open eyes, it takes too long to incapacitate you,” said Sergeant Dave Abrams, supervisor of the Denver Police Department’s SWAT team. “I’ve seen it take more than a minute.”

The inventor of the Cap-Stun spray used, Gardner Whitcomb, countered that the police were spraying at too close a range to allow formation of a mist that can be inhaled. Evidently, the effectiveness of the spray is dependent on the following conditions: the concentration of oleoresin in the spray, the formation of a mist, and the violence of the suspect. In the case of an extremely violent suspect sprayed with weak spray, or a spray that does not mist, the suspect will not be adequately subdued. But in most instances, pepper spray works quite well, and it’s safer than other methods, including handguns.

There have been numerous instances of the improper use of pepper sprays. In 1996, a federal district judge in Washington State barred the use of pepper spray in a state juvenile facility. The plaintiffs’ attorney cited a lack of training on the part of the staff which caused them to over use the pepper spray instead of employing other intervention methods.

In July, 1996, three teenaged boys in Sherman Oaks, California, apparently upset with being barred from a public swimming pool, sprayed a can of pepper spray in a locker room. The acrid cloud of capsicum oleoresin caused burning eyes and sore throats on two adults and fourteen children, who were treated at a local hospital.

But human beings are not the only mammals controlled with pepper sprays. They have been used against dogs, cats, and even bears.

“It’s horrible to be eaten alive by an animal,” said a man who credits a pepper spray with saving his life. Mark Matheny, a general contractor from Bozeman, Montana, and his partner, Dr. Fred Bahnson, were bow hunting for elk in the Gallatin National Forest about thirty miles north of West Yellowstone, Montana in early 1993. They surprised a female grizzly and her three cubs feasting on a freshly-killed elk and the grizzly mother instantly reacted to protect her cubs.

“She charged with incredible speed,” said Matheny. “I had no time to do anything. I held my bow up in front of me for protection, and she just knocked it out of my hand.”

The grizzly smashed Matheny to the ground and seized his head in her jaws. Meanwhile, Bahnson had drawn his can of ten percent capsicum oleoresin spray and charged the bear, screaming at the top of his lungs. The bear turned and was hit directly in the eyes with the caustic spray.

Seemingly oblivious, the grizzly then knocked Bahnson to the ground, turned back to Matheny, and mauled him again. Bahnson recovered and charged the bear again, pointing the can of Capsicum spray at it. He pressed the valve. The can was empty.

The grizzly knocked Bahnson down again, bit him on the arm, and was about to rip out his throat when the spray finally took effect and the bear suddenly broke off the attack, ran back to her cubs and then tore off into the woods.

Matheny suffered from sixteen inches of bear bites on his face and head which required more than 100 stitches to close. But he’s okay now, thanks to his partner Dr. Bahnson, who just happens to specialize in facial reconstruction. And thanks to Counter Assaults personal protection spray.

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