Mountain Sun

Mountain Sun

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Corrupt Origins and Hidden Dangers of Pepper Spray (OC) Use by Law Enforcement

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Seated UC-Davis protesters bombarded with pepper spray (OC), 11/18/11.  According to internal documents from the largest supplier of pepper spray to California police, serious health risks may ensue if police spray a person with OC with more than a single burst of one second duration.
Pepper Spray (or "OC") has been commonly used in the US since long before the Occupy movement began involuntarily soaking up endless streams of it in past months. Classed as a chemical weapon by the UN, pepper spray has been prohibited for military usage through Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The ban became effective in 1997.  So what this officer (pictured above) is doing would be completely illegal on any military battlefield on the planet.

Domestically, however, the use of pepper spray by US law enforcement agencies has exploded over the past 20 years or so, just as it was being prohibited internationally as a war crime.  In the US, usage of pepper spray exploded following successful feasibility testing by the FBI in the late 1980s. A report of the FBI findings was published in 1989 under the title "Chemical Agent Research: Oleoresin Capsicum." While I have not been able to access that report (more on that in a moment), it found that pepper spray could be used without harm to officers or the public, and recommended adoption.  Today, there are at least 16 US manufacturers of pepper spray, and at least two industry trade groups representing their interests.

What is perhaps less known about all this is that the original FBI work done to clear OC for widespread use involved bribery by a leading pepper spay manufacturer, and the agent in charge of the testing was convicted and spent jail time for his role in it.  From a 1996 article in the San Francisco Chronicle:
The main study cited by law enforcement agencies to support using pepper spray is apparently tainted by a conflict of interest on the part of an FBI agent who conducted the research.
The pepper spray study was conducted in the late 1980s by FBI Special Agent Thomas W.W. Ward at the FBI academy in Virginia outside Washington, D.C. But Ward did not disclose at the time that he had accepted $57,000 from a pepper spray manufacturer that was laundered through a Florida company owned by his wife, Sheri.
On Friday, Ward was sentenced to two months in federal prison after he had earlier pleaded guilty to federal charges of accepting an illegal gift.
Prosecutors said his short sentence reflected his cooperation with the FBI investigation. The FBI fired Ward for not disclosing a financial conflict of interest. 
Based on Ward's research and testing, the FBI decided to buy the chemical product Cap-Stun, whose active ingredient, oleoresin capsicum, is derived from cayenne pepper. The spray is intended to temporarily incapacitate aggressive people by burning their skin and eyes and inflaming their respiratory passages, making breathing painful and difficult.
Critics of pepper spray say the FBI research has been discredited and are calling for further studies. But Bay Area law enforcement agencies, including San Francisco, have no plans to quit using it.
Thomas Ward was convicted in 1996, but by that time the floodgates were already wide open.  Today, well over 2000 law enforcement agencies are employing pepper spray on US citizens, all of it based on that key but corrupted and felonious study that, to my knowlege, has never been replaced with a reputable one.

Photo by RL Rasmussen, Oregonian
My attempts to access that study, which was published by the US Goverment Printing Office, have failed as the report is not listed in their inventory (USGPO search engine, accessed 11/20/11).

Some reflections on this.  First, while law enforcement and industry representatives claim that pepper spray inflicts only short-term effects on victims, I'm not aware of any independent study regarding the long-term effects of pepper spray exposure.  I'm guessing that we're all flying blind on potential long-term effects of OC exposure.  Given the confirmed fraud involved in the original FBI study, why has there been no follow-up?  Those participating in the current wave of Occupy protests across the country--and importantly their legal representatives in any court actions--should be very aware of these issues.  

Aside from long-term health issues, there are also very real concerns about short-term effects and deaths of pepper spray victims while in police custody:

In this report, the ACLU of Southern California identifies 26 deaths among people who were pepper-sprayed by police officers in the period Jan. 1, 1993, through June 1, 1995. The fatality total suggests that one person dies after being pepper sprayed for about every 600 times the spray is used by police. 
The fatality summary period ended just before the June 4, 1995, death of parolee Aaron Williams, 37, who, according to witnesses, was savagely beaten, kicked and repeatedly pepper-sprayed by San Francisco Police Department officers in a case that has provoked a major controversy in the Bay Area. 
Increased use of pepper spray by law enforcement has raised serious concerns about whether police will use pepper spray to impose a painful chemical “street justice” without resort to criminal charges or the courts. Moreover, the growing number of fatalities in California has provoked questions about whether pepper spray was properly reviewed for safety and effectiveness before it was legalized for use by law officers or civilians. 
The ACLU of Southern California obtained access to hundreds of pages of documents from the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment that reflect concerns by state scientists over pepper spray’s safety. The ACLU also obtained an internal memorandum produced by the largest supplier of pepper spray to the California police and civilian markets that concludes that serious health risks may ensue if police spray a person with OC with more than a single burst of one second duration.


  1. Well, Who'd a thunk? A corrupted study "proving" a profitable substance was "safe?" That never happens. I do expect to hear more; there have been an awful lot of guinea pigs lately.

  2. Without having the FBI report, it's hard to know what the exact FBI claims were. Later reports seem to stress how much better OC is than projectile weapons, which is believable.
    But the deaths being referred to seem associated with heavy doses that get inhaled and irritate/inflame the respiratory system. These kinds of exposure *may* be associated with a cause of death cops term "positional asphyxia". All this quite speculative...

  3. Of course. But the larger point is that the regulatory process is so captured, not just on police state weapons and practices, but on everything. How about drugs and pesticides? Fracking? GE crops? In every case, people's health is being experimented on in real time. Reminds me of a movie:
    (Monty Python cockney accent)
    DAD: "It's medical experiments for the lot of you."
    KIDS (in chorus) "Awwww."

  4. your point on capture seems undeniable, and this is just one small example of the whole. I'm sure that Congress' recent declaration that pepper spray is a vegetable has nothing at all to do with any of this.

  5. So it's made from Cayenne Pepper, the same as Tabasco Sauce? Then, like getting too much Tabasco on your scrambled eggs, you can neutralize it with milk.
    Of course, knowing that won't so you much good if it gets in your lungs.
    And in any case, it certainly seems wrong to use the stuff on seated, non-violent, protesters. Or to spray it in the face of an 84-year-old lady.

  6. Anon, I believe any pepper can be used as a feedstock for the spray. Since the product is oil-based, I'm reading that water or milk (apparently the preferred treatment by occupiers) will not neutralize it, but it will help flush the OC out of eyes.

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