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If Pepper Spray Isn't Lethal, Why All the Deaths?

June 18, 1995|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maria Trejo called the Orange County Sheriff's Department on April 23, looking for help. Her husband, she said, was high on cocaine and beer and was beating her in their Stanton apartment.

When deputies arrived and took Javier Sandoval Trejo into custody, the 43-year-old man started to go quietly but then suddenly became "combative and agitated," according to a Sheriff's Department report. As he struggled, deputies squirted Trejo in the face with pepper spray, "to little or no effect," the report said.

Within an hour, however, he was discovered comatose in his holding cell at the Orange County Jail. He was pronounced dead a short time later.

"I asked the police for help. I didn't say kill him," Maria Trejo said, weeping during a recent interview.

Javier Trejo's death was one of more than 60 nationwide during the past five years that authorities say might be linked to a chemical agent designed as a non-lethal way to subdue violent suspects, and embraced by a crime-weary public searching for personal protection.

But even as the popularity of pepper spray grows among both police and civilians, concerns are being raised by academics, civil libertarians and some law enforcement officials about the possible lethal consequences of a relatively inexpensive weapon that is manufactured with little or no regulation.

"You have people who die after they have been sprayed," acknowledged Steven Beazer, president of Utah-based Advanced Defense Technologies, one of about half a dozen major manufacturers of pepper spray devices. "Does pepper spray have a role in some of these deaths? I will say yes. It is going to have an effect. These are weapons. . . . Clearly, this is not a breath freshener or an underarm deodorant."

According to a Times review of in-custody deaths since 1990, at least 61 fatalities nationwide--27 of them in California--have been reported following police use of pepper spray on suspects. Two of those deaths occurred in Orange County within the past year, including Trejo's, which is still under investigation by the district attorney's office.

Protests and calls for a federal investigation followed the most recent fatality, the June 4 death in San Francisco of burglary suspect Aaron Williams, 37, who was subdued with pepper spray while being arrested by police.

San Francisco Police Chief Tony Ribera acknowledged to reporters that his officers might have improperly used the spray, and urged further study of the substance. "I am concerned about what, if any, contribution [pepper spray] made to this man dying," he said.

In a report to be issued today, the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "Increased use of pepper spray by law enforcement has raised serious concerns about whether police will use pepper spray to impose a painful chemical 'street justice' without resort to criminal charges or the courts."

Medical and law enforcement experts agree that pinpointing the cause of death in pepper spray-related cases is complicated by the fact that police almost always use the chemical agent in conjunction with other restraining methods--stun guns, handcuffs, manual holds and devices--and in situations that often involve physical struggles.

There is also agreement on other complicating aspects of the in-custody deaths: Most of them grow out of domestic disputes, drug overdoses or psychotic episodes. Large-framed men weighing more than 250 pounds are at particular risk of succumbing after being sprayed, experts believe.

Autopsies generally indicate that the victims were under the influence of alcohol, methamphetamines, rock cocaine or PCP, making it difficult to pinpoint pepper spray as the primary cause of death. Others suffered from asthma, bronchitis or enlarged hearts, or "positional asphyxia," a respiratory failure caused by being laid face down while restrained.

Manufacturers defend their product, saying there is little or no scientific evidence linking pepper spray to any of the deaths. In only two of the 61 known cases have medical examiners cited pepper spray as a factor in the deaths, although medical experts admit that no tests have been developed to detect the spray.

"Look at the . . . coroners' reports. They speak for themselves," said Rick Wimberly, a spokesman for ZARC International, the Maryland-company that manufactures Cap-Stun, one of the brands used by the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "Our product has been tested extensively, and despite best efforts, no threat to life has been found."

Pepper spray advocates also point out the benefits to law enforcement agencies since they began using the spray in the late 1980s. A report by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police said that anecdotal studies of pepper-spray effectiveness suggest that the use of the substance has reduced injuries suffered by both suspects and officers, as well as excessive force complaints against police departments.

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