The arrest occurred last year on the Venice boardwalk and was the subject of a lengthy LAPD investigation. But the tape was not revealed publicly until Monday by an attorney in an interview with The Times.
A source familiar with the investigation said top LAPD brass were "livid" after reviewing the incident, which also prompted a prominent police watchdog to call on the department to develop strict rules on when officers can use pepper spray on handcuffed suspects.
The officer who used the pepper spray resigned from the department before the investigation was completed. After reviewing the tape, the city attorney's office dropped charges that the suspect resisted arrest and committed battery on a police officer.
The suspect is identified in police reports as Benjamin Barker, a transient who frequents the Venice beach area.
Barker was arrested after getting into a scuffle with a merchant on the boardwalk. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery on the shopkeeper.
The videotape shows Barker in handcuffs as he is bent over a patrol car. As the officer pushes Barker into the car, Barker can be heard saying, "Why am I going to jail?"
Once Barker is in the back seat, he starts shouting: "I can't breathe! I can't breathe! Don't spray me!"
One officer is heard saying: "He knows what's happening."
Another officer takes a pepper spray canister from his belt, shakes it and leans in to apply it to Barker's face.
The officer closes the doors of the patrol car and steps back. Barker is seen holding his face up to the car window, his features contorted in pain.
The tape has been viewed by several top LAPD officials as well as police watchdogs.
Connie Rice, chairwoman of the Police Commission's Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel, said she was troubled by the officer's actions and referred the tape to LAPD officials for investigation.
"I could see no justification for pepper spray," said Rice, who reviewed the tape several times. "It's a very serious use of force and you have to have a serious threat such as someone reaching for your gun. I didn't see any kind of threat from a man who was whining and annoying but not posing a threat."
The tape was also viewed by an independent monitor appointed by the federal court to oversee the LAPD after the Rampart scandal, and the monitor was concerned enough to refer it to LAPD administrators for investigation, according to several department sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Venice incident comes as the LAPD and FBI have launched investigations into another videotape showing a police officer hitting a suspect in the face several times at the end of a foot chase in Hollywood.
As in the Hollywood case, LAPD investigators focused in part on whether there were differences between what is shown on the Venice videotape and what officers later said in their arrest report.
In the arrest report, the officer described Barker as combative and said pepper spray was used after Barker spit on him once and attempted to spit on him when he was in the patrol car. The video is shot at an angle that makes it difficult to determine whether Barker spit at the officer, but there is no physical assault seen from Barker. The tape shows the officer take the pepper spray out of its holster then raise it toward Barker's face, but the actual spraying is obscured by shadows.