OC use has reduced injuries since its introduction, especially in the corrections setting. OC, or Oleoresin Capsicum, is made from a chemical irritant resin extraction derived from hot peppers, which causes a burning sensation in tissues.
In many use-of-force models, policy for OC deployment and firearm deployment slightly overlap. In its recent history, OC is proven not only to be effective but statistically safe. Despite some limitations, few deaths have been attributed to OC deployments and even fewer can substantially list OC is the primary contributing factor.
Pepper spray in a gun fight?
Spraying and apologizing beats shooting and apologizing. Not all assailants expose their weapons for police to identify. If an officer finds himself in a situation where a person exhibits passive resistance with a weapon, spraying is appropriate. Passive resistance occurs when a person refuses the orders of a peace officer and the threat of injury is imminent, but no overt action by the subject has been taken. In this situation the threat exists, but an additional step must be taken to consummate that threat.
One example of a passive resistance situation where proactive spraying is appropriate is when the suspect displays a gun but does not threaten with it. The situation is compounded further if officers are not certain whether the gun is real. Obviously, officers should approach from cover and deliver verbal commands. While one officer keeps the suspect in his sight picture, the other can spray.
To the uninitiated, one would wonder why someone would bring pepper spray to a gunfight, especially when most delivery systems are limited to less than 25 feet — a little close for initiating a gunfight. The officer spraying must overlap until the moment of spraying. That is, he must use good cover to get where he needs to be. He begins with a deployed firearm and then switches to OC as the situation permits.
When approaching a situation where there is force continuum overlap, OC spray should be available on the duty belt for either hand, in front of the handgun, on or forward of the hip bone, or on the opposite side forward of the hip bone. This way, the handgun can be deployed with one hand and the OC with either.
It could be argued that the officer who blades himself in the interview stance will expose the OC if it is worn on the opposite hip. This is a reasonable argument: If this doesn't work for the officer, no problem — wear it in front of the gun. Nothing should be worn that might impede the gun draw.
Consider including an agency pre-deployment procedure that pre-positions EMS. That way, emergency medical attention is standing by to relieve the arrestee once subdued.
Correctional officers often employ another version of pre-deployment. Because cross-contamination is a common risk while using chemical agents, some facilities keep a few officers in reserve before the fight begins.
Pre-deployment should be carefully guided by procedure. Officers should use "canned language" to request pre-deployment. In this request, they should include where the officer wishes to have EMS and a brief outline of circumstance. This helps avoid verbal slips over the radio like, "He's going to and need an ambulance ..." or, "He's acting stupid." An example of a proper pre-deployment request could be, "... have EMS preposition at 5th and Elm. I will update as necessary."
Pre-deployment is an operational luxury that can only happen under certain circumstances. But it is something that should be discussed in training updates so officers know that this tool is available.
OC does not work in every situation and certainly does not work on everyone. Officers who use OC should know it might not work, and operate accordingly. In several surveys of law enforcement professionals, the use of the baton was listed as a much higher level of force than chemical agents. This is one benefit of using OC. Because it is an irritant, its success should be known immediately. If it isn't successful, it's time for plan B.
First, chemical irritants should never be sprayed flat-footed; trainees should always move while spraying. Some schools train officers to move laterally while spraying, others diagonally. Either way, officers should avoid spraying while standing still.
The second part of the backup plan is to quickly employ another tool at a threatening assailant, if necessary. It's also another reason why OC users should consider their support hand their primary hand for chemical irritants. If one needs to go to the handgun or baton while spraying, it is much more productive to have that hand unencumbered.
Go to the handgun while spraying? Maybe. Consider this: If the officer is close enough to spray, and the suspect is attacking and OC is not working, the threat of disarmament has significantly escalated. Move while spraying, give verbal commands, find cover and consider your options.
Verbal commands go a long way toward liability reduction. "Don't do it, drop it or get on the ground" should be followed with, "don't make me spray you" and "don't resist." This is conditional language where the officer indicates that the present course will cause the officer to do something. This allows a person the option of submitting.
Deliver short bursts
In several reports from the data collection of OC deployment, there is an indication that suspects are sometimes savvy enough to duck and dodge. This behavior can be mitigated by officers who deliver bursts less than a second long.
Trainers, the next time your agency has chemical irritant training, bring one of those really expensive toy squirt guns. Demonstrate to your officers how much easier it is to follow a steady stream and dodge it, as opposed to several short bursts.
Some OC products spray in a cone-shaped pattern, which can increase the likelihood of a hit but also increases wind deflection. Others, like ETGI's Shotgun Stream products, deliver a stream that is particularly wind resistant. They also have one of the best inert training sprays in the business. It looks and behaves like the defense product, but sprays water. Defense Technology's First Defense 360 can deliver its heated message even when the can is upside-down. Defense Technology also makes Cool-It, an herbal-based product designed to speed a sprayed person's recovery.
Distance is reaction time. Products from ETGI and Defense Technology are designed to provide a reasonable cushioned distance for officers. Other delivery systems, such as irritant and foam combinations, and wide cones of spray are available.
Keep your distance
OC spray products are definitely limited in terms of how far they can shoot. They also should be limited in terms of how closely they are used. OC differs from other chemical irritants in that it does not need to atomize in the air in order to work. It works on contact. But it must be directed to the face in order to be effective. If the suspect is within touching distance, other options are better.
Data suggests that less than repeated contact of OC spray to the eye will not cause lasting effects, but a steady jet of any liquid in the eye can induce cornea damage. This is a good argument to discourage deliberate spraying at distances closer than arms' length. During arrests, officers will often spray while closing the distance to the suspect. This is a correct application. Officers should shift sideways when they reach arms' length, and then perform a takedown.
OC spray and all other handheld chemical irritants are effective tools for officers. And like all law enforcement tools, training makes it all the more effective.
Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.