Use of Aerosol
Weapons by Law Enforcement
Steven D. Ashley,
M.S., M.L.S., MFCI, ARM
The object of this
to examine the current use of chemical aerosol weapons by American law
enforcement agencies, and to consider how the increased use of such
technology has shaped current use-of-force practices. This article will also
assess the impact this increased use has had on citizen perceptions of
police use-of-force, and conversely, the degree to which those perceptions
have affected police use-of-force practices involving aerosol weapons.
USE OF AEROSOL
WEAPONS IN THE HISTORICAL
Hand held chemical spray
weapons (typically referred to as aerosol weapons, aerosol subject
restraints, or ASRs) have been used by police in the United States since the
late 1960’s. Initially, more traditional chemical
mixtures, usually generically referred to as tear gas,
were marketed in small aerosol cans for use by individual officers.
Early hand-held units were often ineffective, as the active ingredients – or
agents – were really intended to be dispersed over a large area in an
airborne cloud rather than sprayed onto an individual in a direct pattern.
Sold under the brand name Mace, these
rapidly gained a reputation amongst police officers of failing to control
aggressive, resistive individuals. Instead, officers that used Mace were
often so effected by the spray that they would refuse to use it thereafter.
Use of handheld sprays generally fell out of favor.
During the late 1970s, a
hand-held spray weapon containing oleoresin capsicum (OC), sometimes
referred to as "pepper spray", was developed for civilian
policing, making inroads into the police arsenal during the 1980s. This
product contains the active ingredient capsaicin, extracted from pepper
plants. Because OC is chemically classified as an inflammatory agent
(differing from the earlier tear gas products, which are chemical irritants),
it produces a more severe effect in the targeted individual. The primary
effects of exposure to OC include sharp burning sensations in the eyes and
on the skin, as well as coughing and profuse mucous production. Generally,
reflexive closing of the eyes, choking and shallow breathing lead to reduced
mobility following exposure.
Today, American law
enforcement generally employs two types of aerosol weapons. Simple OC
products, in varying strengths and concentrations of up to ten percent, make
up the bulk of the aerosol market. Additionally, combination products, or
blends, are also used. Typically, OC and more traditional CS tear gas (orthochloro-benzalmalononitrile)
are "blended" to produce a pepper-fortified tear gas. These blend
products have seen particularly widespread use and acceptance by law
enforcement agencies in the State of Michigan.
Much of the actual research
in the area of aerosol weapons use is actually not aerosol weapon research
at all. It arises from two related fields; military use of traditional chemical
munitions such as CS and CN, and use of capsaicin
based products in the food and pharmacological industries. Much of this
information is dated, having originated several decades ago. While it should
be given general consideration in any body of information regarding use of
chemical agents as weapons, many questions remain regarding its
applicability to the issues currently under consideration.
Military research examined
the effects on individuals of exposure via an airborne cloud of chemical
agent. Typically, this research (as released to the public) focused on
issues such as the concentration of agent in a given volume of air (e.g., in
an enclosed room) required to incapacitate or to kill. While these studies
and other early civilian research were focused on short-term exposures, the
real issue was a desire to determine the range within which enough chemical
agent existed to incapacitate, without resulting in lethality. Issues
regarding the speed of incapacitation were generally not analyzed.
Research into the use of
capsaicin in foodstuffs has typically considered the effects of chronic
exposure in diet. Such issues as desensitization of the tongue and
esophagus, and the effects of continued capsaicin exposure on the stomach
lining, are of limited relevance when considering the acute effects of a
one-time exposure to a spray weapon.
There is some anecdotal
information available regarding the effectiveness of aerosol weapons by
police. Much of this information is drawn from actual usage reports,
completed by officers in the field. Some law enforcement agencies have
compiled this information in an attempt to ascertain the operational impact
of aerosol use. While much can be learned from these studies, fundamental
questions remain regarding consistency of methodology and commonality of
Two additional facts that
tend to prevent definitive use of data from these studies. First, many
different brands of aerosols are involved, with differing concentrations of
active chemical agents. It is extremely difficult to compare a study based
on one product to a study based on a different product. This problem is
exacerbated by a lack of commonality in the aerosol industry, in respect to
terminology and product information.
Secondly, training of
officers is non-standard throughout the law enforcement profession. Some
officers have received viable training, while others have received minimal
training or no training at all. It is difficult to determine the veracity of
data reported by officers that are not trained in proper use of their
aerosol weapons. A parallel issue is the general lack of information on
training levels in departmental studies.
Despite these problems, some
information can be gleaned from these reports. In most case studies,
injuries to both citizens and officers are reduced significantly, while
complaints against police for excessive force are also reduced. Portland,
Oregon, police noted an 83% reduction in subject injuries and a 61% decrease
in officer injuries when OC is used. This was coupled with a 43% reduction in complaints of
excessive force. A study of OC use in the Baltimore
County, Maryland, Police Department noted that officers were injured in only
11 % of incidents where aerosol was used, and that most injuries were very
minor. A suspect injury rate of 8% was also noted. Pre-OC data were
insufficient to make a comparison, but the study concluded that these
numbers represent a significant reduction based on trending analyses. A
reduction in complaints against officers of 53% paralleled other data.
Morabito and Doerner (1995)
reviewed use of force reports in the Tallahassee, Florida, Police
Department, for a 20 month period prior to December 31, 1995. They found
significant reductions in subject and officer injuries when OC was employed,
compared to use of an impact weapon. Officers were injured 24.6% of the time
when impact weapons were used, but only 3.6% of the time when OC was used.
Similar figures existed for suspect injuries; 25% of the time when impact
weapons were used, and 5.1% of the time with OC use.
A study by the International
Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) reported a 90% OC effectiveness rate.
Other research by the same body indicates that while aerosols may
have been employed in arrest situations which eventually resulted in the
death of the suspect, very limited evidence (if any) links the use of OC
with the cause of death.
Some researchers have
identified potential problems with the use of OC spray by law enforcement.
Doubet (1996) identified possible medical implications in the use of OC by
police, and cautioned against use in response to low levels of
resistance. However, a study of aerosol use in North
Carolina found that, out of 2,912 officers sprayed in training and 1,451
citizens sprayed during arrest or detention situations, only eight injuries
were reported, and all were minor irritations of the skin or eyes (Craig,
Messina (1993, 1996)
cautioned against replacing competent defensive tactics training with OC
spray, as spray may be ineffective against highly motivated, goal oriented
individuals. More traditional control methods may be
necessary, and officers should still be trained in their use.
At least one police officer has been killed, with his death
attributed to inappropriate training (Merrick, 1995).
with aerosols should be as realistic as possible, ideally involving
simulated combat scenarios and full facial spray "hits" (Ashley,
Various special interest
groups have collected data which, based upon each group’s assessment of
meaning, indicates that use of aerosols leads to an unacceptably high risk
of death or serious injury. The most notable collection of information is
presented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with the Southern
California Chapter being the most active and vociferous.
is difficult to consider these data collections "research" (for
many of the same reasons stated above, with respect to studies based on
usage reports), however, publication of these and similar compilations have
brought significant pressure to bear for changes in law enforcement aerosol
LESS THAN LETHAL
Because police officers are
charged with enforcing the law and maintaining public order, they are
frequently placed in situations where they must attempt to manage or control
an otherwise free citizen. Whether an encounter leads to an actual arrest or
merely a temporary detention for questioning, these intrusions are often
unwelcome. It is not uncommon for such police intervention to be resisted by
the citizen or citizens involved. When this happens, officers frequently
need to use forcible means to control and perhaps arrest the persons in
question. Traditionally, officers have had limited technology at their
disposal. Beyond empty-hand defensive tactics or boxing, officers could
utilize striking instruments (such as nightsticks, billy clubs or
blackjacks) or they could use a firearm.
Clearly, striking someone
with a club or stick represents a high level of force, with significant
potential for injury. Of course, shooting them represents an even higher
level of force. While such high levels of force are sometimes justified by a
citizen’s aggressive, resistive behavior, the opposite is far more common.
In those situations where
high levels of force cannot be justified, officers were, and are, often at a
disadvantage, facing a significant possibility of being injured themselves.
The need to control certain violent individuals, while at the same time
being refused the availability of the only weapons they possess, has
resulted in many officer injuries while making arrests for relatively minor
violations of the law.
As society’s expectations
matured regarding reasonable levels of force, police needed a control method
that possessed less potential for injury than a "club" or a gun.
For roughly the last decade, that method has increasingly been aerosol
During the late 1980’s,
the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted tests on OC based
products, in order to determine their effectiveness, and the degree to which
they could be deemed safe to use. The FBI test report (1989)
was one of the first pieces of research that could truly be judged to
be independent of manufacturer’s potential influence. Until that time, and
excepting research done on earlier tear gas products in the late 1960’s
and early 1970’s, the only data available as to efficacy and suitability
for use on humans came directly or indirectly from the manufacturers
themselves. Coupled with this lack of independent research, most training
available in the use of aerosol weapons also originated with the
Following the FBI tests,
which found OC based products safe to use, and generally effective,
many law enforcement agencies began to adopt the technology for
routine patrol use. There was commensurate development of non-brand specific
training programs, although much of the available training still emanated
from the manufacturers and vendors of aerosol weapons.
Concurrent with the movement
toward aerosol weapons, law enforcement began to adopt other
less-than-lethal technologies. Expandable police batons, which could be worn
on the officer’s belt (as an alternative to the traditional nightstick,
which was often left behind in the patrol car when needed), became the
"impact weapon" of choice. Different versions of the standard
police flashlight, engineered so as to substitute as an impact weapon when
necessary, were also available, although concerns were raised as to
increased legal liability in such circumstances. Alternative restraint
methods were developed, supplementing and sometimes supplanting standard
issue, chain-link handcuffs.
Each of these new
developments required specialized training, as well as additional procedural
guidelines in order to reduce the risks inherent in technological change.
Such procedures and training were not always implemented, with the results
that new control methods and tools often led to increased liability costs,
and a parallel increase in the number of officer injuries.
As municipal managers and
insurers increasingly take notice of this undesirable and contradictory
trend, law enforcement executives have sought to reduce risk through
adoption of procedures and training programs. Today, many of the negative
results arising from these initial problems have been overcome, although
some departments still lag behind the rest of the law enforcement profession
in their risk reduction efforts.
THE USE OF AEROSOL
It has been estimated that
the majority of law enforcement officers in the United States carry an
aerosol weapon. While most officers have a basic understanding of how to use
their aerosols, the question of when to use them is less well understood. In
fact, there are differing opinions among police administrators and
theoreticians as to when aerosol use is operationally appropriate. Concerns
regarding this question are embodied in several basic philosophies for the
timing of aerosol use.
The first of these
philosophies is to use aerosols when faced with minimal levels of
resistance, such as verbal non-compliance or aggressive posturing.
Justification for use at such a low level hinges upon the potential for
officer injury – and the commensurate increased likelihood of injury to
the involved citizen – if an officer moves in to control the resistance
physically, and begins fighting with the individual. Essentially, it’s
thought to be better to spray early rather than face this increased risk of
injury to both parties.
philosophy is to not spray unless faced with a fairly high level of
resistance, such as would otherwise justify the use of a striking weapon.
The reasoning for delaying the use of sprays until greater justification is
concern that use of the aerosol could result in a severe
physical reaction that might, in fact, be life threatening. This philosophy
tends to place heightened emphasis on avoidance of legal liability in such
A third, and perhaps the
most defensible philosophy, is to use aerosols – and for that matter any
weapon – when such use can meet the test of "objective
reasonableness", as required by caselaw based upon federal
constitutional standards under the Fourth Amendment to the United States
Constitution. One way of stating this is that use of
any weapon is justified when an officer reasonably believes that such force
is necessary to stop an individual’s aggressive or resistant behavior, and
that lesser levels of control would be unsafe or ineffective.
The Supreme Court of the
United States has further indicated that reasonableness should be determined
based upon a reasonable officer’s assessment of four factors; the nature
of the crime at issue, whether the suspect is an immediate threat to the
safety of the officer or others, whether the suspect is attempting to evade
arrest through resistance or flight, and the degree to which the situation
is tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. This last point acknowledges that
officers must act with little time to analyze and consider circumstances,
rather than with the luxury of 20-20 hindsight.
Officers using weapons or
control techniques of any type must be prepared to articulate their need for
the use of such force. The use of force to maintain order, to protect
citizens and to enforce the law must be balanced against the cost to society
in reduced freedom of movement and in increased intrusion into the lives of
society’s members. The outcome of this balancing test will determine the
legal acceptability of each individual use of force.
PERCEPTION OF AEROSOL
USE OF FORCE
There was a time when
mainstream America gave little thought to the routine use of force by police
officers. Unless a citizen had been arrested, or lived in a high crime area,
such things were generally out of sight, and out of mind. When it did come
to the attention of the public, use of force was often deemed to be
necessary for the greater good. Only in the case of inappropriate use of
deadly force did one see very noticeable public reaction, and generally even
those cases did not result in an overall damning of the law enforcement
profession. This is no longer the case.
The proliferation of
information, coupled with society’s ability to capture and rapidly
distribute images and ideas, has dramatically changed the law enforcement
landscape in America. There is an increased belief in the pervasiveness of
brutality and excessive force on the part of law enforcement officers by the
American public. Widespread and repeated broadcast of sensational footage of
excessive force incidents, coupled with endless analysis and discussion of
events by commentators, has resulted in a virtual expectation that the
police will use more force than is necessary.
Despite this trend, in many
jurisdictions where aerosol weapons are properly used and managed,
complaints against officers for excessive force have declined by as much as
50 to 60 percent. It is generally believed that this is due to the
short-term nature of the effects of aerosol exposure.
Physically fighting with a
suspect, and perhaps using a striking implement such as a nightstick or
baton, carries with it a significant potential for harm. Injuries ranging
from scrapes and sprains to deep bruises and broken bones are often the
result. These injuries leave marks on the human body which often remain for
days, if not weeks or months. Occasionally medical treatment may be
required, sometimes resulting in time off from work for the involved
citizen. These situations frequently give rise to complaints that the force
used was excessive, and often are accompanied by threats of legal action.
When viewed in this context,
the relatively short-lived effects of an aerosol exposure, albeit extremely
painful and debilitating, seem preferable. Usually, the most extreme effects
wear off in approximately 20 to 30 minutes, and the exposed person can then
be said to be "functionally recovered".
effects, such as reddening of the skin, bloodshot eyes, heightened
respiratory sensitivity, and a mild burning sensation, can last anywhere
from several hours to several days. In a very few cases, there may be some
peeling of the outer layer of the skin (as if recovering from a mild case of
Unfortunately, high profile
cases such as the recent demonstration in Humboldt County, California,
wherein officers applied OC directly to the eyes of apparently peaceful
anti-logging demonstrators, are widely broadcast by the national media. In
such cases, debate ensues as to the appropriateness and necessity of aerosol
use, giving rise to statements equating use of aerosol weapons to
"torture". Following such incidents, some
jurisdictions rethink their use of aerosols, and sometimes ban further use
by local police.
On balance, it appears that
routine use of aerosol weapons by police leads to reductions in complaints
of excessive force, while high profile, individual cases often give rise to
general discontent with use of force practices in the effected
Societal pressure to find
less injurious methods of controlling behavior led to the development and
increasing adoption of aerosol spray weapons during the 1970s and 1980s.
Once products began to appear, law enforcement agencies began to seek the
most effective aerosol weapons from both a liability reduction and officer
As of this writing, the
majority of law enforcement agencies in the United States are routinely
using aerosol spray weapons. In most states, a high percentage of those
departments are equipped with oleoresin capsicum (OC) products. In some
areas, blends (most notably of OC and CS tear gas) are used.
Increasing pressure from
citizen’s groups and the media has encouraged law enforcement
administrators to develop appropriate procedural guidelines for use of aerosol weapons, and
to develop and implement training programs in aerosol weapon usage.
Increasing levels of documentation and supervision of incidents have
resulted from ongoing public scrutiny of use of force situations.
In jurisdictions where
appropriate policies and procedures are in place, supported by thorough
training and adequate supervision and management, reductions in officer and
suspect injuries, as well as fewer complaints of excessive force, continue
to be reported. Occasional aberrant incidents receive widespread publicity,
fueling public perception that police in general use excessive force.
NEED FOR FURTHER
While a large amount of
information exists on capsaicin, much more research is needed into the
long-term effects of OC aerosol weapon exposure. Specifically, more research
is needed into the long-term effects on vision and respiratory health. More
definitive study is needed into any possible connection between use of
aerosol weapons and in-custody deaths.
There is an almost total
lack of research into the effects of blend (CS/OC) based aerosol weapons.
The completion of future research into use of blends is particularly
important for those regions of the country (such as Michigan) where blends
are the dominant weapon used.
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manufacturer whose product he eventually recommended for purchase. Despite this fact,
the report has never been withdrawn, and very little publicity was noted regarding the
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