ACLU cites pepper spray in custody deaths

June 19, 1995|By New York Times News Service

SAN FRANCISCO — /TC SAN FRANCISCO -- A type of tear gas made from cayenne peppers is not a benign police tool but a potential killer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said yesterday in a report on pepper spray.

The report said that as of the end of May, 26 people who had been sprayed with the liquid had died in police custody in California. These deaths had occurred since October 1992 when the state's attorney general, Dan Lungren, certified pepper spray for use by law-enforcement officers. The three-year approval expires in August and can be renewed by Mr. Lungren.

Civilian use began in March 1994 and is regulated by the California Legislature.

Although pepper spray was not cited as the cause of death in any of the incidents, it was a common factor in all cases. All but two who died were under the influence of drugs, especially stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines. In addition, half were hog-tied after being sprayed and died within a short time. In a hog-tie, a suspect's wrists and ankles are bound behind, with an elastic cord joining the two bindings.

The report said the combination of restraint technique and the spray can seriously impair breathing and result in "positional asphyxia," a form of suffocation.

The ACLU said Mr. Lungren ignored warnings from state scientists about these potential dangers and permitted pepper spray's use without the complete toxicologic testing that the state's Environmental Protection Agency had requested.

Because of its "extreme concern" about pepper spray's safety, the civil liberties union has asked the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission to assume responsibility for regulating the product.

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