U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Assessing Chemical Incapacitant Sprays

NCJ Number
International Journal of Police Science and Management Volume: 4 Issue: 2 Dated: Summer 2002 Pages: 115-126
Brian Rappert
Date Published
12 pages
This article examines the use of chemical incapacitant sprays by police officers.
Many police forces have deployed chemical incapacitant sprays as a means of trying to reconcile difficult issues in the use of force. It is only within the last 30 years that personal chemical incapacitant sprays have been available and their adoption widespread. Three chemicals form the primary active agent in most sprays: chloroacetophenone (CN), ochlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS), and oleoresin capsicum (OC). While each of these incapacitants has the same purpose, their effects can differ depending on the characteristics of each device. Tests show that pepper spray, or OC, is more effective than CS or CN on violent and mentally ill people. OC sprays do not require intensive decontamination procedures. Pepper spray is a highly effective option that results in no long-term effects. However, major questions have been raised about the tests’ validity. Limited safety tests were conducted on OC agents and what information was available suggested the use of these sprays on a varied population posed significant risks, such as mutagenic and carcinogenic effects and cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity. The extent to which such risks would lead to health problems would only become apparent after many years of usage and exposure. A 1996 Baltimore (Maryland) study, aimed at determining how effectively pepper sprays incapacitated, indicated that sprays incapacitated individuals in only 70 percent of cases, though it eased arrest 85 percent of the time. A study done in the Buffalo (New York) Police Department between 1994 and 1997 focused on the use of incapacitants, their effectiveness and injury potential, and their possible abuses. Evidence regarding use showed that more and more officers were being trained with the sprays. Results showed that the spray immobilized subjects in 67 percent of cases and compared favorably with options such as the baton or flashlights. The possibility of abuse was explored by an examination of complaints made against officers from citizens. Chemical force accounted for 56 percent of the types of force noted on complaint forms. 1 table, 31 references