Ruling limiting police use of pepper spray -- a positive step

The recent ruling restricting police use of pepper spray to subdue nonviolent protesters is a positive step toward eradicating a potentially lethal practice, Amnesty International said today.

Earlier this week the UN Committee against Torture criticized the USA about "the number of cases of police ill-treatment of civilians...". The misuse of pepper spray by US police was one of a number of concerns raised by Amnesty International in its report to the Committee.

The San Francisco federal appeals court ruled on 4 May that the use of Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray (also known as "pepper spray") may in some circumstances constitute an unconstitutionally "unreasonable use of force".

"However, due to the risks associated with pepper spray, its use is questionable in any circumstances," Amnesty International stressed.

The ruling does not ban the use of OC spray, but indicates that there are limitations on when it is appropriate for use by law enforcement agents.

The ruling stemmed from incidents in 1997 in which Humboldt Country law enforcement officials in California swabbed liquid OC directly into the eyes of non-violent anti-logging protesters and sprayed the caustic chemical into the protesters' faces from inches away. Amnesty International at the time condemned the action as "tantamount to torture".

After a federal judge had dismissed a civil rights suit brought by the protesters on the ground that the procedure caused only "transient pain", a three-judge panel revived the case. They noted that "The evidence suggests the protesters suffered excruciating pain" from the use of the pepper spray, and because the protesters posed no danger to anyone at the time, a jury should decide if that amount of force was unreasonable under the circumstances. The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution allows police to use only as much force as is "reasonable" to make an arrest.

"This ruling should clearly signal to law enforcement officers that it is no longer acceptable to use pepper spray in such a calculated and deliberate way to inflict pain as a way of subduing demonstrators who pose no threat ," Amnesty International said.

"We now hope that it will influence police practises not only in California, but in the USA as a whole."

Amnesty International is renewing its call on the US federal authorities to establish an independent nationwide review of the use of OC spray by law enforcement and correctional agencies.

"All agencies should either cease using OC spray or introduce strict guidelines and limitations on its use, with clear monitoring procedures," the organization said. To Amnesty International's knowledge no such review has yet taken place and monitoring continues to be inadequate.

International law encourages the development of non-lethal weapons but it states that such weapons should be "carefully evaluated" and their use "strictly controlled". Yet, the use of OC spray by police agencies in the USA is not governed by a regulatory agency. Amnesty International has long expressed concern at the lack of consistent monitoring of the use of OC spray by US law enforcement agencies and at its inappropriate use in the case of non-violent demonstrators.

In December 1999 Amnesty International wrote to the Seattle authorities to express concern about reports of police using large quantities of OC spray and tear-gas indiscriminately against non-violent protesters, residents and bystanders during the World Trade Organization demonstrations. Some non-violent protesters who refused to leave police buses on arrival at Seattle detention centres alleged that police officers pulled back their eyelids and put pepper spray or gel into their eyes, nose and mouth. Another protester alleged that he had pepper foam deliberately rubbed into his eyes with a cloth after being strapped into a restraint chair in King County jail.

Since the early 1990s, more than 90 people in the USA are reported to have died in police custody after being exposed to OC spray. While most deaths have been attributed by coroners to other causes, such as drug intoxication or positional asphyxia, or are unexplained, there is concern that OC spray could be a factor in some cases. For example, just a week ago a 30-year-old man from Colorado Springs died after deputies at a country jail (El Paso Criminal Justice Center) tried to control him with pepper spray. Andrew J.Spillane, who was in custody on suspicion of drug-related offences, began having problems breathing after being sprayed; he died a few hours later.

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This article is part of patientfox's human rights node

What is it?
Pepper spray, of which the active ingredient is capsaicin, is also known as OC (oleoresin capsicum) spray or OC gas and is a non-lethal chemical weapon used primarily for riot control by military and police forces. Pepper spray is also popular as a self defense measure, and it is carried by many people for this purpose. Residents of Washington, D.C. must register pepper spray with the police, and residents of the UK may not legally possess it at all¹.

What does it do?
It may be non-lethal, but it certainly isn't non-painful. Police grade sprays can have a Scoville heat rating of over 5,000,000; civilian grade sprays average around 2,000,000¹. Pepper spray incapacitates by causing temporary blindness when it contacts the eyes and intense burning when it contacts bare skin. It also causes the mucous membranes to swell which hampers the ability to breathe. If you are unlucky enough to get sprayed, expect the effects to last from as little as 30 minutes to as much as over an hour.

What if I "accidentally" get some on me?
The short answer is to wait. There is no way to completely neutralize pepper spray. That being said, it can be further diluted. Water won't work, but a combination of milk, honey, a mild detergent, and some baking soda should cool the affected areas and remove some of the pepper spray¹. Rubbing alcohol or cooking oil can also be used as capsaicin is soluble in both ethanol and oil. After washing the affected area(s), a cold shower will remove more irritant. The method of bathing should be a cold shower because warmth opens the pores and bath water just collects and redistributes the chemical.

How do I use it, and where do I get it?
Civilian grade pepper spray is relatively easy to find. A quick Google search turns up numerous web sites where pepper spray can be purchased. I have also seen it in hardware, home improvement, and outdoor stores. Police or military grade pepper spray is harder to find. The only manufacturer I could find is Zarc, but they only sell to U.S. Law Enforcement, U.S. Military, U.S. Commercial Security, and International Governments².

Pepper spray comes in three varieties: spray, grenade, and bullet. The spray type is used like a normal spray can. Point the nozzle at the subject and spray. Zarc's standard duty spray has a range of around 15 feet and is good for 12 ½ second shots³. Grenades are primed and then thrown. Zarc's only grenade will cover a 10,000 cubic foot area, and the grenade's constant discharge lasts for 45 seconds³. The bullets are full of pepper spray and designed to fall apart on impact and not enter the body. Although the bullets are designed to be non-lethal, at least one person has been killed by one (a fan celebrating after the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 American League championship).

The average consumer will buy the spray variety. There are three types of sprays: stream, mist, and foam. Stream has the longest range, but it's the most difficult to aim. Mist is the easiest to aim, but is has the shortest range. Foam is the middle ground as it is relatively easy to aim and has a decent range. Foam is the most sensible choice; you need it to work easily at close range, and the increased difficulty in aiming the stream isn't worth the extra range.

Should I get some?
Sure. If you would feel safer carrying some, go for it. Just like any weapon, however, understand how it works and be prepared to use it. Take a training or self defense class if they are offered in your area. Otherwise, call the local police station and ask what resources there are to learn about pepper spray and its proper use. Carrying a weapon that scares you or that you don't know how to use is dangerous and irresponsible.

Works cited

  1. Wikipedia: Pepper spray, author unknown,
  2. Sales and Ordering - Zarc International, Inc. -
  3. CAP-STUN OC Products - Zarc International, Inc. -

Works referenced

Thanks to avalyn for informing me about the rubbing alcohol treatment and pepper spray bullets.
Thanks to yclept for recommending that I add that pepper spray is also soluble in oil.


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