By Doug Oakley
Berkely police used pepper spray on combative people nine times last year, but officers found it effective in just five of those cases, according to reports published on the city’s web site.
Policy makers in Berkeley declined to talk about the reports, but the police department defended its use, saying anecdotal evidence over the years shows it can be an effective tool in crime fighting.
Although the police department has been required to submit reports on the use of pepper spray, a concentrated version of cayenne pepper, to the City Council and the Police Review Commission since 1997, the city only recently began publishing them on the Internet.
The issue of police use of pepper spray got hotter than a jalepeno in November when UC Davis police were shown on videos spraying non-combative protesters who were sitting and had linked arms during an Occupy protest Nov. 18. The school’s police chief and two officers involved in the Davis pepper spray incident remain on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.
In Berkeley pepper spray is prohibited for crowd control and “incidents involving passive resistance,” according to a 2009 training bulletin.
While the reports show that pepper spray used by police in Berkley in 2011 was effective only 55 percent of the time, hardly anyone involved in making police policy is willing to talk about it.
Berkeley’s Interim City Manager Christine Daniel declined an interview as did the Police Review Commission’s interim officer Lillian Mayers. Police Review Commission Chairman George Perezvelez did not return phone calls nor did Cice Chair Michael Sherman.
Berkeley Police Spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Kusmiss did say the department has not discussed “re-consideration of the use” of pepper spray despite its spotty record in 2011 of bringing resisting suspects under control.
“The effectiveness of (pepper spray) on an individual varies so much depending on the dymanics involved,” Kusmiss said. “Some individuals react to it immediately, some are under the influence of a drug or intoxicant and in other cases the will to escape or not return to prison is greater than the effects of the spray, and suspects have various levels of tolerance.”
For example, in an Oct. 1 incident in which officers responded to a domestic violence call where they observed injuries to a female victim, police tried to arrest the male suspect who “was very hostile and attempted to barricade himself,” according to the report. When the man assumed a fighting stance an officer sprayed the man but nothing happened.
“The suspect charged me, punched me twice in the face and tackled me to the ground,” the officer said in his report.
In another case on April 2, a man suspected of stealing a backpack put up a fight when officers tried to arrest him. After fighting with the man for several minutes an officer sprayed him but he “continued violently resisting” and it took “six officers to subdue him,” the report said.
On the other hand, pepper spray has proved useful in some cases, according to the reports. In February a woman who was eventually taken for a psychiatric evealuation was swinging a razor blade box cutter at passersby and then lunged at a responding police officer with razor.
“I deployed my spray,” the report said. “I targeted the forehead...She dropped the razor and retreated to the sidewalk. The suspect was handcuffed.”
And in another case police responded to a call of a 235 pound man who was throwing potted plants into a roadway. When officers arrived the man jumped on top of a police car and started stomping on the rooftop, the report said. When they tried to pull him down, he started fighting. After hitting the man with a baton several times and not getting any response, “I sprayed him in the face for about one second,” the report said. “This ended the fight.”
Kusmiss said pepper spray is just one of the tools police have in fighting crime.
“If it is not effective, officers move to another force such as defensive physical tactics to bring the situation under control as safely as they are able,” she said.
While Berkeley police are not keeping a scorecard of when pepper spray is useful and when it is not, Kusmiss said anecdotal evidence proves that it is useful.
“Anectdotally, there are many instances in our collective memory where pepper spray has rendered suspects incapacitated enough that officers were able to handcuff them safely, thus reducing the likelihood of suspects, comunity members and officers getting injured,” Kusmiss said.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.