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Pepper spray

A Olympia Police officer pepper sprays a protester who tried to block the entrance to the Port of Olympia, Wash., Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007. Photo: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

From Occupy to Wal-Mart, pepper spray has been omnipresent in national headlines in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, a video of campus officer Lt. John Pike casually pepper-spraying seated students at close range at a UC Davis student protest went viral online. In other cities, police have been accused of using pepper spray indiscriminately on protesters, including a pregnant woman and an 84-year-old. This past weekend, a southern California woman sprayed fellow shoppersduring a Black Friday rush at a Los Angeles Wal-Mart.

The seemingly sudden proliferation of pepper spray use prompted comedian Jon Stewart to comment on “The Daily Show” this week, “We’ve suddenly become a people who use pepper spray to alleviate minor inconveniences. Pepper spray has become America’s new car horn.”

What has been the relationship between law enforcement and pepper spray, and what restrictions govern its use? Here are five things to know.

1. It’s more than a “food product”

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly riled up the blogosphere when she described pepper spray as a “food product, essentially” on “The O’Reilly Factor” last week. Pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum, is considered a non-lethal agent derived from the same compound that provides the burn in habanero chili peppers. But modern-day OC spray, as it is also called, is far more potent than any naturally grown pepper. The Scoville Scale, a scale developed to measure the varying intensities of peppers, places police-grade pepper spray at around 5.3 million Scoville heat units – more than five times the intensity of the hottest natural pepper, the bhut jolokia.

When sprayed directly at the face, the effects of pepper spray can be severely incapacitating, invoking temporary blindness, breathing difficulties, a long-lasting burning sensation and severe coughing, with effects lasting anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. Although pepper spray is deemed a non-lethal agent, studies suggest that high levels of exposure can have serious health effects. A 1999 report on the health effects of pepper spray by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina states (pdf):

Depending on brand, an OC spray may contain water, alcohols, or organic solvents as liquid carriers; and nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or halogenated hydrocarbons (such as Freon, tetrachloroethylene, and methylene chloride) as propellants to discharge the canister contents.(3) Inhalation of high doses of some of these chemicals can produce adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic effects, including arrhythmias and sudden death.

2. Pepper spray’s spotty past

Modern-day pepper spray was developed in 1960 at the University of Georgia, and was originally intended for use as an animal repellent. In the 1980s, the U.S. Postal Service issued pepper spray to mail carriers to ward off dogs during their routes.

The FBI developed pepper spray into a weapons-grade material in the 1980s, and ran studies that culminated in its approval for use by law enforcement to quell unruly behavior in the early 1990s. In the late 1990s, use of pepper spray by civilians also started to gain in popularity as a measure of personal defense, particularly for women.

The FBI’s studies of pepper spray that eventually led to its expanded use by law enforcement around the country came under scrutiny in the late 1990s, when the FBI agent who conducted research on the main study was charged with having a conflict of interest. Special Agent Thomas W. W. Ward, had accepted $57,000 from a pepper spray manufacturer through a company owned by Ward’s wife. In 1996, Ward plead guilty to charges of accepting an illegal gift, was fired from the FBI, and spent two months in a federal prison as a result.

After law enforcement agencies began utilizing pepper spray, several groups began to express concerns about the link between police use of the spray and dozens of in-custody deaths that occurred over a period of several years. The National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the Department of Justice, issued a report (pdf) in 2003 on the matter, and found that pepper spray was a leading cause of death in two of the 63 fatalities examined. Both cases of death involved people with asthma.

The suspected links to in-custody deaths and Ward’s conflict of interest have, for some, tainted the notion that pepper spray is an appropriate weapon for use on humans. Scientific studies on the spray’s effect on human health, however, are limited.

3. Regulations vary state by state

In general, pepper spray for civilian use can only be sold to adults over 18 years of age, excluding felons. Further regulations over the use of pepper spray are currently in place in a handful of states, which regulate the amount of pepper spray that can be sold in one container (1.2 ounces in Michigan; 2.5 ounces in California; 2 ounces in Wisconsin) and the percentage of oleoresin capsicum concentrate in each container (no more than 10 percent in Michigan and Wisconsin).

When pepper spray was approved for law enforcement use in California in the early 1990s, state agencies issued recommendations that pepper spray not be used as a measure of crowd control. That stipulation, however, was never codified.

4. Pepper spray and the “excessive use of force”

In 1997, law enforcement officers in Humboldt County, Calif., sprayed pepper spray directly into the faces of several anti-logging demonstrators who were staging a non-violent protest and had locked themselves to one another with metal devices. In a controversial video of the incident that surfaced, some officers held individual protesters down and applied pepper spray concentrate to their eyes using cotton swabs.

In the resulting civil case, Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that “the use of pepper spray on the protestors’ eyes and faces was plainly in excess of the force necessary under the circumstances, and no reasonable officer could have concluded otherwise.”

5. End law enforcement pepper spray use altogether?

Some human rights and civil liberties groups championed the cause of ending all police use of pepper spray in the mid-1990s, after law enforcement agencies adopted the weapon en masse. In a 1995 report titled “When Police Play Russian Roulette,” the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights argued (pdf) that the approval of pepper spray for law enforcement was authorized without sufficient testing on the potential health effects on humans, and that it is a potentially lethal weapon. The ACLU also vocally denounced police use of pepper spray in the 1990s; after the Humboldt County incident, it filed a request to the California Appeals Court to declare police use of pepper spray as dangerous and cruel.

Recent events have sparked a national on the proper use and misuse of the spray, although calls for a moratorium on pepper spray use by law enforcement have largely subsided. After the fallout at UC Davis, Kamran Loghman, one of the FBI employees who helped develop weapons-grade pepper spray in the 1980s, denounced the campus police’s use of the spray toward its students. Individual officers have faced disciplinary action for improper use of pepper spray – NYPD officer Anthony Bologna, who used pepper spray against two Occupy Wall Street protesters in September, was transferred from his post, and two UC Davis officers and the police chief are still on administrative leave. So far, however, it doesn’t seem that the case for ending all police use of pepper spray has held much sway.  


  • RuthM

    Thank you for all the additional background on pepper spray.  I would appreciate it if you could do a thorough analysis of Taser’s, too, as I can imagine that their inappropriate use will not be far behind.  While you’re at it, maybe you can look into the psychology of those that have no problem over using all the various weaponry that we seemed to feel compelled to continually invent and produce. 

  • Jay Banta

    This is not the objective reporting I usually expect from PBS.  I’ll go back to someone like the Newshour which make a valid attempt to looks at both sides of such an issue.

  • Nmkbh56

    Sooo…what was missing from this report, Jay?  How tasty and delicious pepper spray can be when applied to an otherwise bland taco?  This stuff was intended as a non-lethal means of subduing a potentially VIOLENT criminal…not as crowd control against a passive citizen sitting on the sidewalk.  

  • Ktrego413

    Definition of VIOLENCE
    1a : exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare effecting illegal entry into a house)b : an instance of violent treatment or procedureAs listed in Webster’s Dictionary.  I think pepper spraying protesters is an act of violence.

  • Anonymous

    here is an idea that time has come to explore … let’s see who would voluntarily put their bodies up to feel the effects of pepper spray or being tasered or even waterboarded … after going through any of the above procedures … let’s see who would allow it a second or third time and then ask them if it should be permitted … i don’t think anyone would approve of these methods after being victim to them … there are many in our society that feel and believe these are necessary … i don’t think they would after experiencing them first hand …

  • Shortymac97

    what’s interesting is MOST police officers DO have to go through that kind of experience during their training!! So it’s even MORE sad to see them abuse such “power”! :-(

  • Imyoung

    Pepper spray is”cruel and unusual punishment” as stated in the US Constitution.

  • Saihto

    Blatantly bias garbage….  pepper spray does in no way cause temporary blindness the oil causes your eye lids to close.  If you keep your eyelids open you can see.  Any accredited police dept. requires their officers to experience these tools prior to use on the road.  Pepper spray and the tazer are both safer and more effective than having to physically force someone into the arrest, which is why they are often time used prior to any hands on contact by police.  This article might as well be an editorial as it has little basis in reality and no references to back it up.

  • Robofrye

    Ha! Pepper spray vs. Batton? Ill take the spray thanks. Used to get it all over myself during arrests. Almost worthless. Just go back to hands,stick, gun. Very simple and clear for the outcome.

  • Anonymous

    I suspect that the people who approve of this casual police use pepper spray are the same ones who believe that waterboarding is not torture. Sadists, essentially.

  • Doug Welborn

    Peaceful dissent being beaten down in America by chemicals that can kill (especially if you’re asthmatic) Well; What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Maybe the next time the blue line pickets for better pay, benefits, etc., the citizen militia should come out and pepper spray them so that they can feel the protestors pain. Oh! I forgot, they’re above the law eh?

  • John Nixdorf

    Some issues don’t have two sides. Should there be objective reporting of abuses and atrocities, presenting the tyrant’s side as well as the tyrannized? 

  • Anonymous

    Get pepper spray in your eyes and then tell me it’s not lethal. It is illegal in a number of states and municipalities for that very reason. While the immediate effects may last no longer than 45 minutes, that does not address the problem of residual burning, irritation, and allergic reactions, or inhalation and exposure of sensitive areas, which have in several cases led to injury and even death.

  • Oakfeathers

    Using excessive force has become the norm for too many police forces. we have the right to peacefully assemble. If someone is not peaceful, that is one thing, but to spray at those who are not doing anything but refusing to move, is not right. Many people are allergic to pepper, what if that pregnant woman had been allergic and they caused her to miscarry? Or killed the old lady because of it? We the people have been ignored too long and are ready to be current day Robin Hoods because those in power are being corrupted by campaign funds and perks. If we can’t get rid of them through voting, we will keep fighting for our rights. With demonstrations, social media, and how ever we can get on our soap boxes.  
    I would be out there if I could right along with them. I can’t, so I will continue to speak out on social media, and share the stories and videos of abuse of our rights.

  • disgusted

    Do people really get all of their information from one one-sided editorial??  This is crazy, you’re the kind of people whose opinions channge with the wind.  Think about police less lethal options.  Police have OC, impact weapons (ASP), joint manipulation, strikes and tasers.  Every other use of force option has a higher risk of causing more permanent damage than OC.  Lets remember, OC is a weapon, no one is saying it isn’t.  If police or citizens use it unjustly, then hold them accountable.  But OC is a great tool when used correctly and if it did cause permantent damage to a few people, i’d like to know where they got their info, then I’m sure the percentage is still far lower than the other Use Of Force Options i listed previously.

  • HumanRights

    1. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented 27 people in police custody who died after exposure to pepper spray in California since 1993. 2. You are entitled to your opinion as long as you also don’t agree with demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and Syria. If this is your opinion, then you must support those governments silencing the protestors with various anti-riot weapons. 
    3. A riot is a “disorganized groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence against authority, property or people” 
    4. In United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875), the Supreme Court held that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers or duties of the National Government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and, as such, under protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States.”-wikipedia. 

  • john

    first of all only a stupid policeman would want a otherwise peaceful arrestee put in a incapacitated condition, just makes everything harder,so it is a obviosly punitive act. If ill effects occur do to underlying medical consdition,the city pays for the medical care. if proven unwarranted by a court it subjects the city to large civil trained police officer would do these things unless they had other motives or  were themselves out of control.

  • disgusted

    Since I like to get all of the facts, not just one side, please tell me, in this study, was “pepper spray” the only use of force method used on the 27 people who died since 1993?

  • Flhxrider

    Break a law get pepper sprayed and arrested, its that simple. If you don’t like it don’t put yourself in such a situation.

  • Getsafenow

    Most police grade pepper spray is not 5.3 MM Shu, but about 1/10th as much. Only Fox Labs uses a 5.3Mm Shu base in its spray. Most cops use Def Tec at 0.5MM Shu or other brands at 2.0MM shu.

  • Shanghaiedexpat

    Kind of like your comment….not backed up my any credible references….the pot calling the kettle black!!

  • Shangaiedexpat

    Have you ever been pepper sprayed….? I have, although admittedly, when I was young and by accident. It is extremely painful and last quite some time…moving through your head like a severe handover….from top to bottom/back to forth, your entire head/face is on fire….and it sucks BIG TIME!!. So that was 30 plus years ago and your telling me that its not cruel and unusual…? You don’t think the colonist, whom wrote the Constitution would have deemed having pepper juice (don’t forget the hottest known to man)….rubbed all over your face and either “cruel” or “unusual”….son you need to do some homework and come back when you get an education!!

  • Hippyd50

    currently law enforcement is contracting studies with the Bhut Jalokia or ghost pepper for use in defense spray.  These peppers are grown in India where they are used in small bags to repel elephants.  This pepper will strip paint and the schoville system does not have a rating to measure the heat of this pepper.  In it’s normal pepper form it can paralyze the respiratory tract.

  • Hippyd50

    my God those cops were surrounded by eighteen year old kids that were setting down on there own campus offering no real threats.  Most of them are protesting the fact that the collages are charging them right out of collage. $45,000.  And on top of that The collage regents have just this week had raises approved.  Comes right out of student tuition.  We are going raise a uneducated generation and drop us further behind the Indian and Chinese engineers. 

  • Raymond Wallace

    Oh…as long as it’s only the stupid or out-of-control policemen…Actually I’m all for pepper spray.  With the decline of human rights in this country, it sure beats bullets. 

  • Paul

    Break a law and get arrested, sure fine.  Even the protesters expect that.  I just don’t see why pepper spray is a necessary part of the equation.  If someone is taking a swing at you that is one thing but a group of highly trained police officers should not have a problem handcuffing and arresting a person who is just sitting on the ground not fighting back.  Would you honestly not agree with this statement?

  • Anonymous

    When the police announced that they were removing the Occupy Wall Street from a local park. The wife and I went down to the park as the police came that night and I made sure I was seen. We are Seniors to show support to the mainly young people. I was told by one of the Occupiers that my presence was putting me and my wife at risk of being arrested or being pepper sprayed
    Neither happened. As we helped a disabled Occupier get his wheel chair and worldly possessions (a 24 year old disabled man) to a storage facility and then to a homeless shelter, we learned a lot from that young man. His mom had died a couple of months before and he knew our helping him was his mom watching out for him.

    I suggest, that more of you, sitting in your easy chair “show up” at an Occupy Wall Street venue if you believe that our country is going the wrong direction. The Occupy is more in tune than anyone right now and certainly more in tune than our government.

    The Occupy Wall Street movement must be doing something right, as the Tea Party Nation recognized OWS as the “jerk of the year”.

    Pepper spray is NOT a food product.

    Shame on the Police for its use at an event that is First Amendment rights.
    The police using Pepper Spray is no different than what is happening in Syria and in the Middle East.

    If that kind of action continues, there will be a like return response by those who are being abused with pepper spray and it will be a sad day for this country if that happens.

  • Anonymous

    Democracy is Not a “Spectator Sport”.

  • D. Wilson

    It is NOT lethal. I, and all cops I know, have been pepper sprayed (in the police academy) and it didn’t hurt in the long run. Was it painful? You bet! Did it suck for an hour or so after exposure? Yes! However, it is a useful tool for people who resist. As much as it really does suck to be sprayed with OC, it is much more desirable than being struck by an officer, either with open fists or even some soft-hand techniques. Some people might even prefer it to being tased (which I’ve also had done, and which also sucks, but is quick and there is no recovery period), and certainly to being hit, which might result in broken bones. The more options police have, the less they have to use the options that could result in permanent pain and damage to the subject. I assure you that all certified police officers in any state have been sprayed with OC and have been required to perform job-related tasks immediately after exposure…they do indeed know what it feels like. Police don’t want to have to use force on anyone, and it’d be great and make the job much easier if people just complied with lawful orders…unfortunately, some people just want to make life harder on themselves. If you don’t do what the police ask you to do, there will be a price to pay. Pretty simple really. Obey the law and comply with lawful orders. If you want to protest, as is your right, just realize that you can go to jail peaceably to make a point, and you don’t have to get hurt!