Video footage of police officers using pepper spray against student protestors at the University of California – Davis (UC-Davis), has drawn international attention. The images, which have been widely circulated on the internet, have renewed a debate over the proper usage of the substance.
Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written extensively on the subject, considers weaponized pepper spray a potentially dangerous tool. In an interview with The Daily, she explained some of its harmful effects.
“Pepper spray works by amplifying allergic sensitivities. It irritates and damages eyes, membranes, bronchial airways, anything it touches. It is particularly dangerous to asthmatics,” Blum said.
The dangerous effects of pepper spray are well-documented. In 2000, researchers at the University of Helsinki found that pepper spray, or Oleoresin Capsicum spray, could cause immediate, but not permanent, damage to the corneal structure of the eye. In another study, published by the Journal of Correctional Health Care in 1997, experts noted that the inappropriate use of pepper spray could inflict “behavioral and mental health effects” on individuals.
In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a request to the California appeals court in 1999 to declare the use of pepper spray dangerous and cruel.
Pepper spray has been found to be a contributing factor to many deaths of individuals in police custody in the U.S. Fewer deaths have been reported in Canada, where pepper spray is subject to tougher regulation: for example, pepper spray is sold as bear repellant, and civilian use against humans is prohibited.
Blum argues that police officers are not properly trained to handle pepper spray, and that the incident at UC-Davis is part of a wider problem.
“There have been comments from law enforcement officials that this was inappropriate use of pepper spray. Who decides that they could use pepper spray anyway?” she asked.
Blum added that more severe punishments should be leveled against officers who use the substance abusively.
“The officer at UC-Davis was only given a paid suspension. That is not punishment,” she said.
Information on the UC-Davis and Montreal police departments’ training methods could not be obtained by The Daily at the time of press. However, the Institut de police du Québec says that pepper spray should only be used after the suspect has been warned verbally, and considers it to be less serious than physical force.
For Blum, pepper spray is not taken as seriously as it should be.
“I know people who were both tasered and pepper sprayed. Being pepper sprayed is far more painful. It should only be used if the officer is threatened,” she said.
In Quebec, the Association paritaire pour la santé et la sécurité du travail – an agency that aims to promote a safe working environment for government employees – issued a series of recommendations on the use of pepper spray in 1998. It states that suspects should only be vaporized for one to two seconds.
According to Blum, the families of some of the UC-Davis students who were pepper sprayed are now looking to file a lawsuit.
“They’re looking at a lawsuit,” she said. “Some of the students were sent to the hospital, and one was definitely coughing up blood. It’s just shocking.”