No Pepper Spray on Nonviolent Protesters

 (posted here 5/11/05)

When Police Play Russian Roulette:
The Case for a Moratorium on Police Use of Pepper Spray

Authors: Lenore Anderson, Jo Hirschmann and Van Jones

Published in the year 2000 by:
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
344 40th Street *
Oakland, CA     94609
510.428.3939 (office)
510.428.3940 (fax)

Executive Summary

When Police Play Russian Roulette… makes the case for an immediate moratorium on police use of pepper spray. As the report explains, pepper spray is a chemical weapon that has never been properly tested. With one exception, all the available research into pepper spray raises serious questions about its safety for use on humans. The one study that claims pepper spray is safe for use by law enforcement agents has since been thoroughly discredited. It was conducted in 1991 by former FBI Agent Thomas Ward who pled guilty to accepting $57,500.00 in kickbacks from a pepper spray manufacturer.

Despite this, Ward’s study marked the point at which police departments around the country began adding pepper spray to their arsenals. Citing the FBI report, departments touted pepper spray as a promising weapon. It seemed to have the potential to resolve key challenges faced by police officers in the 1990s, and its proponents claimed that it provided a "less-than-lethal" alternative that could effectively subdue aggressive or violent people.

However, the weapon has failed to live up to the expectations that accompanied its introduction. First, it is far from a "less-than-lethal" alternative to guns or batons. Instead, at least 100 people have died nationwide after being pepper sprayed by police officers. Second, it simply is not effective in subduing aggressive people. And third, it is used in selective and discriminatory ways, meaning that it is disproportionately used on low-income people of color. In particular, it tends to be used on people (especially men of color) who are experiencing psychiatric crisis. Responsible policing should allow for people experiencing such crises to receive help, rather than be doused with an intensely pain-inducing substance.

When Police Play Russian Roulette… provides a comprehensive overview of all the available literature on pepper spray. It reaches the conclusion that the only responsible course of action is to place a moratorium on police use of pepper spray until adequate testing has been completed. A well-intentioned attempt to deal with public safety issues has ended up creating a far greater public safety problem. No one is safe when our police officers carry and use an unreliable, untested, potentially lethal chemical weapon. Given that police use of pepper spray clearly is not in the public interest, we urge departments around the country to turn in their pepper spray.

Read the complete report (99 KB PDF file) (Available from NoPepperspray by permission of the Ella Baker Center)

* Note: The EBC moved from San Francisco to Oakland. The address and phone shown above is the new address. The address shown in the document is the old address.

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