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Pepper Spray Report

Research Review: "Use of Force Policies and Training Recommendations: Based on the Medical Implications of Oleoresin Capsicum," by Darrell Ross, PPCT Director of Research.

Oleoresin Capsicum (OC; pepper spray) is now widely used by police departments throughout the country for the control of "resistant individuals." Spicy oils have been used in sprays designed for such control since about 1977 and have, since the early 1980s, come to be viewed more and more as viable alternatives to the use of more deadly force. The manufacturers of OC claim that it is safe, non-toxic and that it does not cause permanent or long term health problems. When the researchers of this report contacted 16 OC manufacturers with a questionnaire relative to their medical studies, not one of them returned it, nor did any provide medical documentation. Instead they cited a highly questionable 1989 FBI study and, according to the report, "the assumption that [OC is] a byproduct of chili peppers." Their claim as to the safety of the spray is at least open to question since, in the words of the report, "both short term and long term medical research is non existent and recent discovered medical literature research reveals the existence of health care risks to ... exposure to OC." The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has reported 60 deaths since it began monitoring the use of the spray in 1993.

The purpose of the PPCT report, according to its authors, is not to suggest that OC use be halted but to look at approximately 150 medical studies and research relative to the spray and its use. They make clear that PPCT supports the use of OC as an alternative to violent force and intends this study to serve as warning of dangers inherent in the use of OC that might redound to the disadvantage of police officers using the product. They cite a 1993 Department of Defense review of the medical literature linking OC to "mutagenic effects, ... cardiovascular [and] pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity and human fatalities." A 1996 report related OC to "gastric cancers, vision loss [and] brain and nerve damage." The report finds these medical studies "troubling and pos[ing] significant considerations to law enforcement ... [There is] a consistent pattern where OC products may be hazardous to individuals with respiratory conditions or vascular disease." Long term effects on the eyes, particularly the possibility of cornea damage are also troubling and "OC could be fatal to individuals with cardiac or respiratory conditions."

Most police departments lack clear policies with respect to the use of OC, and its dangers could well cause both civil litigation and workmen's compensation problems. One of the rationales behind the use of OC had been that, since it is safe to use, there would be no litigation resulting from allegations of police brutality - and hence no costs to the community. Many of the OC deaths, however, have resulted in civil litigation and "administrators are [therefore] encouraged to review their ... policies and develop a section on the proper ... use of OC."

The report concludes on a note of advice to police departments to protect their own personnel during all training involving the use of OC. The authors note that "[it] is strongly recommended that officers do not fully be exposed to OC without eye and face protection." All well and good, to be sure, but one wonders about all those in the general public - in whose name the police theoretically work - since they do not customarily go about wearing "eye and face protection" when they venture on the street, much less when in their own homes.

A copy of this abstract, or of the complete 60 page report, The Medical Implications of OC Sprays, researched and written by Mike Doubet, can be obtained by writing to: PPCT Management Systems, Inc., at 500 South Illinois, Millstadt, Illinois 62260.

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