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Pepper Spray: Research Insights on Effects and Effectiveness Have Curbed Its Appeal

NCJ Number
Paul A. Haskins
Date Published
May 2019
2 pages
After a brief review of the history of law enforcement's use of pepper spray, or oleoresin capsicum (OC), as a "less lethal weapon" (LLW), this article reviews factors in the more constrained deployment of OC as a standard police LLW.
OC is an organic extract of the cayenne pepper plant that can stop most subjects' aggressive behavior by temporarily blinding them, creating a burning sensation in the eyes and skin, as well as often affecting breathing. By the early 1990s, OC was rapidly expanding as a preferred use-of-force option for many agencies and officers. As of 2013, an estimated 94 percent of all police departments had authorized the use of OC; however, the actual use by police waned over time with the surge in popularity of conducted energy devices (CEDs) among officers. Several factors contributed to the reduced deployment of OC as a standard LLW for law enforcement agencies. The factors cited in this article are as follows: 1) an increasing knowledge and concern about OC's effects on subjects and officers; 2) a spreading belief that OC is less reliable than a CED activation, with research tending to support this; and 3) court decisions since 2000 that have ruled OC can constitute excessive force in violation of the subject's constitutional rights.