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

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Pepper spray is an oily plant resin made from such dried spices as chili or cayenne. In some products, the resin is mixed with mineral, vegetable, water or soy oil, and some form of alcohol carrier. It’s injected into a canister, from which it can be dispensed in short bursts.

According to one training manual, a spray in the face “can precipitate immediate and disabling effects, including rapid inflammation of the mucous membranes, instant closing of the eyes, and coughing, gagging and gasping for breath.”

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The exact effect of pepper spray on the body is unknown and varies from person to person. Some researchers have speculated that the gagging reflex may cause some people to believe they are suffocating and cause them go into shock or suffer heart failure. People who chronically abuse drugs may be more susceptible to the effects of the spray because of enlarged hearts.

Pepper spray is now in the hands of thousands of police officers and an estimated 6.5 million civilians who use it with minimum training and scant knowledge of its potential health effects.

Since March, 1994, when it was approved for sale to civilians in California by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, 126,266 people in the state have been certified to own and use pepper spray. Medical experts suggest, however, that through intentional or accidental use, these civilians may run the risk of jeopardizing their own lives or others who suffer from asthma, bronchitis, heart conditions or other maladies.

State and federal researchers have been tracking each fatality, in an effort to determine what role, if any, pepper spray has played in the deaths.

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“We are concerned that in each incident, untoward reaction to [pepper spray] may be the contributing cause of death, or exacerbated underlying conditions such as pre-existing disease or drug use to cause cardiac or respiratory failure,” Carol J. Henry, director of the California Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an Aug. 26, 1993, memo to Lungren.

The following year, when Lungren approved civilian use of pepper spray, he did so over the objections of Cal-EPA, which had been monitoring the in-custody deaths, according to agency documents.

Despite the growing debate, pepper spray has staunch advocates who support its use by both for police and civilians.

Lungren said he considered pepper spray “a tremendous success” in providing police officers with “an alternative to using firearms and lethal force.”

The attorney general said that in 13,000 incidents involving law enforcement officers, pepper spray was effective 86% of the time in subduing suspects, according to reports filed by local law enforcement agencies and complied by the state Department of Justice.

While his office constantly monitors cases in which suspects die in custody after being sprayed, Lungren said, “I have to look at what the alternatives are.”

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Since approving civilian use, Lungren has endorsed AB 830, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame), which would eliminate all required training and certification requirements for the purchase of pepper spray. Under current law civilians must pass a test, take a course or view an instructional video before purchasing the spray. Speier’s bill has passed in the Assembly and is pending in the Senate.

“Everyone knows how to use an aerosol can,” Lungren said. “We use them everyday, from hair spray to bug spray. People know how to spray a can. And that’s exactly what pepper spray is: You just aim it, spray it and run the other way.”

But medical experts and manufacturers say the effect of pepper spray on a subject cannot be predicted and that care must used in its application.

So far in California, 27 people have died after being doused with pepper spray by police, according to the ACLU report.

From 1990 to 1993, 23 people elsewhere in the nation died after being squirted by police with pepper spray, according to a study by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, funded by the U.S. Justice Department.

Since 1993, the National Institute of Justice’s National Law Enforcement Technology Center has identified seven more such deaths outside California and is investigating three others. A subsequent review by The Times found four more cases in the United States in 1994 and 1995 that federal researchers said they were not aware of.

The Los Angeles Police Department reported that three men died in custody after being sprayed with pepper gas since 1993. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported one such fatality since 1993.

“I feel sure that in the early days of pepper spray there probably were cases of death that weren’t attributed to pepper spray because it was commonly believed to be completely safe,” said Howard Perry, founder and former president of Advanced Defense Technologies, an early pepper spray manufacturer.

The injury toll also is mounting.

From July 1, 1994, through April of this year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission logged more than 150 emergency room incidents in which exposure to pepper spray was cited as the cause for treatment, many after the product leaked in handbags or was accidentally set off.

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Police and corrections officers in California, North Carolina and Florida have filed lawsuits to block mandatory exposure to pepper spray in training, charging that officers have suffered serious health effects after being sprayed.

Nearly all parties in the pepper spray debate--manufacturers, law enforcement officials and civil libertarians--agree that the product would benefit from some manner of federal regulation.

“There are no requirements out there for manufacturers to do product testing, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Federal Food and Drug Administration,” said David K. DuBay, director of research for Defense Technology Corp.

“Because of the prohibitive cost of such studies, no manufacturers have carried out acceptable safety studies,” DuBay said. “As a result, little or nothing is known about the health risk or toxicity of pepper spray. There are legitimate manufacturers . . . and then there are people making this in their garages without regulation as to what goes into the product.”

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Last week, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved participation in a nationwide, federally funded study on the use of pepper spray. The yearlong, $217,570 study, conducted by the National Institute of Justice, will compare the outcomes of use-of-force situations before and after the introduction of pepper spray by police.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is accusing the California Department of Justice of dragging its feet in monitoring and analyzing fatal incidents involving pepper spray, which is used by most law enforcement agencies in the state.

The ACLU report urges that the Department of Justice “develop emergency restrictions on pepper spray to minimize exposure of people who may be at increased risk--including drug users, asthmatics, the mentally ill and people with pre-existing heart or respiratory disease.”

The ACLU strongly opposes the Speier bill, which would allow civilians to purchase pepper spray over the counter, without being instructed on its use.

“We think it is a mistake to rush into legalized civilian use,” said Alan Parachini, an ACLU spokesman. “It’s impossible to escape the fact that even experienced toxicologists are uncomfortable with the ease with which civilians can get access to pepper spray. . . . It is surely folly to throw caution to the winds and abandon any form of training and to open the market up to manufacturers who employ shameless hype to market their untested products in a climate of fear.”

Speier, however, defends her bill. “We have learned a great deal in one year” of civilian use of pepper spray, she said. “Bottom line, the attorney general and I would prefer that people push a button, not pull a trigger.”

Times librarian Sheila Kern contributed to this report.


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