Questions raised over use of pepper spray
(Ala.) Most often identified as a non-lethal option to control crowds or subdue a potentially violent person, pepper spray is also a frequently used tool by police on K-12 campuses – a practice that is increasingly under debate.
Just last week, members of a legislative panel in Virginia killed a bill that would allow school security officers to be armed with stun guns and pepper spray, largely out of concern for student safety.
Meanwhile school officials in Louisburg, N.C., are reviewing use-of-force protocols after an officer used pepper spray last month to quell a crowd of high school students gathered to watch a fight.
And in Boston, the city schools chief shut down in November plans to equip school police with pepper spray, saying the proposal could “drive a wedge” between students and campus security.
But perhaps nowhere is the issue under greater scrutiny than in Birmingham, where a federal district judge is considering whether continued use of pepper spray by city police assigned to public schools is a civil rights violation.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the 2011 suit against the city school district and police, pepper spray was used more than 100 times at Birmingham High during the prior five year period – a figure civil rights attorneys say is unprecedented nationally.
Pepper spray, or oleoresin capsicum, is widely used throughout the world by law enforcement personnel confronted by dangerous, combative or violent subjects. Although much of the research suggests that the spray is safe and effective, some studies have linked its use to serious complications and even fatalities among asthmatics.
A 2003 U.S. Department of Justice report found use of pepper spray in three North Carolina cities resulted in fewer injuries to both officers and suspects; complaints for excessive force also declined.
But use of the spray by school security personnel raises a range of different issues, especially if it is employed in non-life threatening cases.
The infamous 2011 incident at the University of California at Davis was one example where campus police used pepper spray on a group of seated protestors who later won a $1 million settlement from the school.
Attorneys say that every school district should develop a clear policy detailing the circumstances in which pepper spray can be used. There should also be strict policies ensuring that only trained personnel have access to the spray.
A medical protocol should also be established to treat students who have been sprayed – either intentionally as part of a security intervention or as innocent bystanders.
The pending federal suit in Alabama alleges that campus security used pepper spray as punishment for “ordinary” teenage misbehavior. In one incident, a 16-year-old boy was sprayed and handcuffed after yelling a curse word; in another case, a 17-year-old was sprayed and arrested for being “loud and boisterous.”
In court testimony, a California emergency room physician argued that other means of control available to the police – including fists, batons, Tasers or even guns – cause far more physical harm than pepper spray.
City police leaders have also defended their use of pepper spray on campuses as appropriate and consistent with department policies.