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Pepper Spray: An Unreasonable Response to Suspect Verbal Resistance

NCJ Number
Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management Volume: 27 Issue: 2 Dated: 2004 Pages: 206-219
Otto M. J. Adang; Jos Mensink
Date Published
14 pages
This study collected data on pepper-spray street trials in four Dutch police forces and compared them with other research findings on the safety and effectiveness of pepper spray and the position of pepper spray in the use-of-force continuum.
In the literature on the use of pepper spray, three issues have been prominent: the safety of pepper spray, its effectiveness, and the place of pepper spray on a use-of-force continuum. Street trials with pepper spray in four Dutch police forces began in July 2000 and lasted 6 months. A total of 3,308 officers were equipped with pepper-spray canisters to be carried in a holster on the officer's belt. When used, the canisters eject a "stream" of ballistic droplets with a capsacinoid content of 0.2 percent, with a water/alcohol mixture as solvent and nitrogen as propellant. Prior to the start of the street trials, all officers involved received a 1-day (6-8 hours) training from previously trained police instructors. According to the provisional policy, the use of pepper spray was permitted in arresting a person who is ready to use a weapon that can stab or hit, a person who attempts to evade arrest, and in self-defense against aggressive persons and animals. Pepper spray was not to be used against groups, children under 12 years old, the elderly (above the age of 65), visibly pregnant women, and people with visible breathing problems. Pepper spray was to be used only for a maximum of two times on the same suspects and not within a distance of 1 meter. Officers were instructed to warn the suspect prior to spraying, if possible. After each use of pepper spray, the suspect was to be provided with aftercare as soon as possible. Participating officers were equipped with special decontamination towelettes and sprays. At selected police stations, eye-showers were installed. The selection of stations permitted a sprayed suspect to rinse his/her eyes with tepid water within 15 minutes. Three sources of data were used: officers who had used pepper spray, substitute prosecutors who interviewed arrested suspects, and arrested suspects who had been sprayed. Data from the first 6 months of the street trials closely conform with findings from other countries. So far, no medical problems have arisen, but sprayed arrestees reported extreme discomfort and a wish never to be sprayed again. The data indicate that the threat to use pepper spray was often sufficient to deter a suspect from resistance to an officer (about half the cases). Of all suspects accurately hit in the face with the spray (as reported by officers), the officers estimated the spray to be effective (suspect ceased resisting) in 75 percent of the cases. Regarding the place of pepper spray in the use-of-force continuum, the data indicated that the use of the spray was often accompanied by many tactical flaws that might have prevented the use of the spray, such as giving no warning before using the spray, self-contamination, use of the spray from a distance of less than 1 meter, or officers rushing into an interaction with the suspect. Applying a painful stimulus to a nonviolent, noncooperating suspect by spraying with pepper spray will often be disproportionate to the level of resistance. Less painful techniques are available if applied effectively. Training to improve officer tactical and technical skills could reduce the use of pepper spray and the risk to police-community relations that results from its overuse. 2 tables and 28 references