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In Split Vote, Police Commission OKs Wider Use of Pepper Spray

September 29, 1993|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wider use of pepper spray on individuals who resist police officers was approved Tuesday on a 3-2 vote by the Los Angeles Police Commission, which acted over its chairman's objection that more study was needed on the spray's effects at the present level of use.

The commission's action means that the potent spray will be used not only as a substitute for such "intermediate force" as batons blows and kicks, but also during the "compliance" phase of police use of force, substituting for wrist or twist locks, wrist lock-downs and arm bars--procedures that end resistance by causing pain.

Oleoresin capsicum, the scientific name of the pepper, has a blinding and choking effect in most cases and can incapacitate a person for 45 minutes or longer.

The vote came over the pleas of American Civil Liberties Union representatives who had given the five commissioners a 40-page report just the day before suggesting that the LAPD has already been using pepper spray in a racially discriminatory manner, and questioning whether its use might have contributed to the deaths of seven people in California who were in police custody.

The ACLU report said the group found that 54% of LAPD pepper spray incidents reported to the state in the last year involved African-Americans, who constitute 13% of the city's population.

The report also cited some evidence that people who are suffering from asthma or drug overdoses may be susceptible to particularly harsh effects of the pepper spray, although it said that there should be more study to determine whether this has contributed to the deaths that have occurred.

Saying that the spray is not always effective, and that in some instances it has incapacitated officers trying to use it on suspects, ACLU public affairs director Allan Parachini urged that the Police Commission keep the use of the spray at the present threshold, while monitoring the way it is used and determining its effects.

The commission's chairman, Rabbi Gary Greenbaum, and its lone African-American member, Deirdre Hill, backed keeping the use of the spray at its present level, citing a need for more data. Greenbaum suggested a six-month review.

But the three other members, Herbert F. Boeckmann II, Enrique Hernandez and Art Mattox, voted to widen use of the spray, lowering the threshold for its use to the compliance level.

Hernandez said he thought that pepper spray already has been shown to be less traumatic in its effects than the wrist holds and twist holds it will now, in effect, replace.

"This is an opportunity to avoid trauma to both the people and the police," he said, although he acknowledged a need for "close, continuing scrutiny" to determine that the questions raised about it are answered.

Boeckmann said at first that he would support the establishment of a new force level between "intermediate" and "compliance" at which the spray could be used. But he later voted with the majority to extend it to the compliance level.

Gloria Romero, representing the Police Commission's Hispanic Advisory Group, told the commissioners she feared that increased use of pepper spray might result in more lawsuits against the department.

But Rick Dinse, commanding officer of the LAPD's training group at the Police Academy, testified there have been no lawsuits in more than 250 uses thus far.

The ACLU report said that since August, 1992, there have been more than 2,100 reported uses of pepper spray by law enforcement agencies in California and that statewide, 192 of the total of 450 agencies use it.

One police department, the 44-officer Indio force in Riverside County, reported using the spray almost 100 times more often per officer than LAPD personnel.

In terms of effectiveness, the ACLU said the law enforcement reports to the state cited effectiveness rates in the range of 82% to 87%, lower than claimed by manufacturers.

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