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Valleywide Focus

SAN FERNANDO : Pepper Spray Class Takes Aim at Fear

November 11, 1994|TIM MAY

They crowded the back hallways of City Hall on their lunch hours Thursday, wrapped in raincoats, smiling sheepishly at each other and laughing at their latent boldness.

The mostly older group, about 60 strong, had come to learn how to use a kind of tear gas known as pepper spray, and to claim some peace of mind.

The first two sessions of the $30 pepper spray training and certification courses, sponsored by the San Fernando Police Department and the local Chamber of Commerce, were packed, as citizens from all over the Valley came to learn how to use the debilitating agent--a potent mixture of oil and cayenne pepper extract--and earn laminated state permits allowing them to legally carry the substance, which can temporarily choke and blind an assailant.

The crowd was evenly divided between men and women. Most who attended said they had either been victims of crime or felt seriously threatened on the streets.

"Three weeks ago, I was going to my office," said Edward Glover, 50, of North Hollywood, "when I was approached by a homeless man in a very aggressive way. I could tell he was going to do something to me. But I got inside and locked the gate before anything happened. I will feel better knowing I have something to use for protection."

After attending the training, where he was required to hit the face of a cardboard target at least three times using a pepper spray canister loaded with water, Glover vowed to send all six employees of his North Hollywood paper goods company to the class.

Pepper spray became legal in California on March 1. To carry the substance--which is contained in a fist-sized, pressurized canister that comes in only one color, bright yellow--citizens must register with the state, undergo training, and score a 70% accuracy rate during target practice.

Trainees also received one canister of First Defense MK-6C pepper spray, the only brand approved by the state. Proceeds will go to the local Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) and Police Explorer programs.

During the training, Jim Hein, owner of the Security Training Center in North Hollywood, explained that pepper spray should only be used as a last resort. "It's a last-ditch stand. Don't use it in search of glory."

A training video showed a man attempting to pick the pockets of a woman walking down the sidewalk. The woman turned and squirted the man in the eyes with her spray.

"Don't do that," Hein warned. "It's illegal. That person is not being physically harmed."

Inappropriate use of the spray, which can cause the esophagus to constrict, the eyes to dilate, and the mucous membranes to swell, carries fines of up to $2,000 and three years in prison. It is a felony to carry the combustible canisters on planes or in secured airport areas.

Robert Chenoweth, 58, of Tujunga, registered for the class after learning that his pepper spray wasn't legal in the state. "I bought mine six months ago from a catalogue. I'm not into guns, but I wanted something so I could feel safe. The way this city's gotten lately, I'm glad I came."

Helga Redondo, 30, of San Fernando, was recently victimized by a burglar, who broke in and stole her engagement ring.

"It happened in broad daylight. I'll be ready if it happens again," Redondo said, looking at her new canister of spray, still in the packaging.

Glancing around the parking lot, she added: "I guess I should open this right away, eh?"

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