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The escalating misuse of pepper spray

Updated on December 5, 2014
Shoppers at a Los Angeles Walmart sustained injuries after a woman pepper sprayed into the crowd in order to get to a display of Xbox games.
Shoppers at a Los Angeles Walmart sustained injuries after a woman pepper sprayed into the crowd in order to get to a display of Xbox games.

In my last hub I posted some humorous items inspired by this year’s Black Friday pepper spraying incidents at Walmart. But this post is a more serious commentary and I write it not just because of the Walmart events but what I see as a sobering trend surrounding the use of pepper spray.

In case you don’t know about the Walmart Black Friday incidents, here are the brief details:

Kinston, NC: An off-duty police officer, who had been hired to help with crowd control was filmed shooting a puff of pepper spray into a Walmart crowd. According to the officer he was responding to a disturbance. But what was the actual nature of this disturbance? A shopper had fallen into a display. A witness to the scene says the pepper spray hit about 20 customers, including children.

Los Angeles, CA: a woman has surrendered to police following allegations she pepper sprayed a Walmart crowd in the effort to clear a path to a crate of Xbox video game players. She has been released pending further investigation. Authorities say at least 10 people were injured due to the pepper spraying and ten others sustained cuts and bruises during the ensuing chaos.

These events may be interpreted in a few different lights. 1. They are consequences of mass consumer greed. 2. They are manifestations of a public desperate for bargains in a time when difficult economic times have hit most people very hard. 3. They are combination of 1 and 2.. 4. They are utterly unrelated and the NC incident can be accounted to a trigger-happy cop who actually believed he was there to help though he used little or no common sense in evaluating the situation he found himself in, while the Los Angeles event was caused solely by the actions of one very aggressive woman with no compunction about the potential for harm she was inflicting upon fellow shoppers.

Then there is theory #5: that these incidents are merely indicators of a culture where people are steadily discarding the last vestiges of civility and self-restraint.

For those who pay attention to the news it would be hard not to talk about these pepper spraying events without mentioning another recently notable pepper spraying incident. This other one happened at UC at Davis, when several Occupiers were pepper sprayed by campus police. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the Occupy folks. While I do understand and empathize with angst against corporate greed gone rampant, their objectives have been poorly articulated and their actions have demonstrated a general nonchalant attitude to the inconvenience and nuisance their protest makes for others. Their cause has been befuddled at best, anarchist at worst. Likewise, the videos that show them encircling the police at the campus fails to kick them up a notch on the integrity post. Yes, they shouldn’t have encircled those cops and deliberately given an impression of possible malicious intent.

Nonetheless, the campus cops didn’t win my heart either, and in particular Lt. John Pike, who stands now in the center of this controversy. Once the group of offenders was subdued by the initial dose of pepper spray a more disciplined officer would have likely stopped and had his team go in and carry the offenders off to the paddy wagon.

Lt. John Pike dousing UC at Davis protesters
Lt. John Pike dousing UC at Davis protesters

Pike, however, didn’t do this. After viewing footage of the Occupiers’ belligerent behavior it may be tempting to dismiss his actions as those of an officer simply doing his duty during a tense situation. But some time ago Pike subdued an individual who was threatening a fellow officer with scissors and a spray bottle of caustic chemicals. Pike chose not to use pepper spray then, citing later he didn’t’ want to bring harm to fellow officers. So he knew full well the hazards of this chemical device. Most importantly, the footage that showed the Occupiers encircling the police just as clearly shows that Pike not only used pepper spray against them, but that once they were immobilized he walked back and forth in front of them and drenched their faces several more times.

Such a choice of action can hardly be called reasonable or heroic. Pepper Happy is what I term it.

Incidences of pepper spray, mace and taser misuse have been on the increase over the last few years. Pepper spray alone poses very real potential dangers for humans. It is made of concentrated cayenne pepper, usually derived from the oil of this spice. Anyone who has cooked with cayenne pepper knows that one thoughtless swipe of an itchy eye while the undiluted stuff is on your hands can create instant tearing, pain and swelling. For those allergic to it such an accident –whether getting it into the eyes or nose or into the mouth by swallowing or even a thoughtless lick- can bring on serious, sometimes life-threatening reactions.

Pepper spray, like mace and tasers, is easily accessible for purchase (ironically enough the last place I found it for sale was at Walmart). In a more perfect world I would say this isn’t a good thing, but I happen to keep a bottle of pepper spray on a keychain in my purse. The reason for this is because some years ago I was preyed on by an obsessed stalker. In this age pepper spray can be an important part of a self-preservation arsenal (in addition to learning some self-defense tactics as my husband taught me). And trust me, if that stalker shows up again I will have no problem giving him a good squirt in the eyeballs. Just like anyone else, I have a right to defend myself.

The trouble, however, is that a good squirt just isn’t enough for some people, and too many are relying on pepper spray, mace and tasers for offensive purposes. Using concentrated cayenne as an offensive weapon turns the user into nothing but a Pepper Happy jerk.

Here are some other examples of offensive incidents instigated by Pepper Happy individuals:

December, 1993, Chicago: an unidentified person forced a school to evacuate after running through the hallways dispersing an entire canister of pepper spray.

June 4, 1995, San Francisco: Aaron Williams, while being held in custody on suspicion of robbery, died from position asphyxia after police doused him with pepper spray.

In March 2003, Chicago: two mothers were arrested after the school their children attended had to be evacuated. The evacuation resulted from the two women feuding inside the school with pepper spray.

April, 2005, Golden Valley MN: police responding to a robbery pepper sprayed and arrested a man they believed was the suspect, Al Hixon. However, Hixon was a black man and 911 transcripts later revealed that the cops were told more than once prior to arriving to the scene that the suspect burglar was white. Hixon was released and later won a large punitive damages lawsuit. But the officers who arrested him received no discipline in the matter.

2007, FL – Astronaut and Feminist poster-girl Lisa Nowak confessed to lesser charges as part of a plea bargain in the attempted kidnapping and murder of Colleen Shipman. Nowak’s arsenal in the crime included pepper spray, an item Shipman testified that Nowak sprayed threw into her car window at the Orlando Airport.

Disgraced ex-astronaut Lisa Nowak
Disgraced ex-astronaut Lisa Nowak

September, 2010, a Topeka: woman was charged with five counts of aggravated battery after allegedly pepper spraying several individuals

April, 2011, Lakewood, CO: Police were summoned to a school after an 8-year old boy’s temper tantrum so frightened one teacher she barricaded herself in a small room. Once there the police ordered the boy to put down the sharp stick in his hand, which he did. Then the police sprayed him, not once but twice, with pepper spray.

April, 2011, internet global-wide: Photographs of a Brazilian police officer callously spraying a young child in the face with either mace or pepper spray went viral. This incident is, sadly, a testament of what has become a routine way of conduct among Brazilian police toward women and children. The police officers involved in this particular event were summoned to remove people who had showed up to protest unfair practices being carried out against low-income tenants.

Brazilian cop photographed pepper spraying a small child.
Brazilian cop photographed pepper spraying a small child.

June, 2011, Malta: a 76-year old man was pepper sprayed as he tempted to fend himself against two muggers.

April, 2011, Mesquite, TX: a police officer was caught on video pepper spraying a baby squirrel. The officer was called to the scene by school officials at Kimbrough Middle School after they reported a rodent who was chasing students and acting erratically. Although most agree the officer acted out of concern the baby squirrel could have been rabid, why he didn't wait for animal control authorities instead has yet to be answered. But he did manage to throw into tears the school children that witnessed his act.

June, 2011, Maryland: a 28 year old woman was taken into custody after she began taking photographs of a pregnant woman without permission. The ensuing argument resulted in the pregnant woman being pepper sprayed.

August, 2011: Abingdon, PA: a woman was victimized with pepper spray during a home invasion when two teens broke into her residence. The victim was not only a 77-year old senior but also a Holocaust survivor.

August, 2011, Brooksville, FL: 22-year old Danitra Hicks was arrested for driving to her cousin’s home and pepper spraying her. Hicks’ anger was attributed to a Facebook feud the two that had had earlier in the day.

Sept. 2011, Redcliffe, W. Australia: a former cop was charged for the assault of a man and of subsequently falsifying official documents about the incident. The cop was accused of having pepper sprayed the victim and dousing him with beer.

October, 2011, Mesa, AR: more than fifty people had to be evacuated from a psychiatric hospital when police thought using pepper spray would lure a runaway patient out of an air vent. The fumes from the spray traveled through the vent and into every room on the floor of the hospital.

November 2011, Utha: innocent bystanders, including a four year old child, were hit with pepper spray when cops used it against a group of Haka dancers who had gathered following a high school football game. Haka is a traditional dance of Polynesia and the performers had come to the ball game to watch one of their relatives play. The police involved contended the family had been blocking an exit way, and the officers subsequently cleared of all wrongdoing. Witnesses to the event, however, claim the cops had no reason to use such force and gave no warning to the crowd before using the chemical.

Ongoing, Norfolk, VA: security guards hired by the Norfolk school district have been equipped with pepper spray since 1997. Despite a slew of complaints from parents the school officials are determined to continue the practice, even after an October incident when a female security guard blasted away to break up a food fight in one cafeteria. In this occasion the pepper spray hit several children not even involved in the food fight and sending all students in the cafeteria to the school nurse, and a few to the emergency room for inflammation of their asthma.

Via Youtube: These Georgia cops were filmed during a sobriety test of a driver. When the driver passed the test he was not only tasered but his mother was pepper sprayed.

I’m not going to speculate how the misuse of this chemical devise is going to play out tomorrow or even months or years from now. I will say I detest the idea that the FDA might attempt to wield their heavy-handed politics to regulate the use for personal protection. In general pepper spray, like tasers and mace, cause less fatalities each year than hand guns. They do have their uses and do offer protection. But quite frankly, I am concerned by this growing trend of misuse. There may be underlying and mult-ilayered reasons some people do and will callously whip out the stuff in response to unwarranted fears or to just satisfy a psychological need to intimidate others. But as with all weapons reasons are insignificant compared to damaging consequences. A weapon of defense is only useful if used with self-restraint. And for this reason there is no excuse for anyone to be Pepper Happy.

©November 30, 2011 by Beth Perry

What do you think?

What do you think is the major reason for the growing trend of pepper spray misuse?

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