Half a dozen Anne Arundel County police officers-in-training received a one- to two-second squirt of pepper spray directly to the eyes this week, amid temperatures that pushed 100 degrees.
"God, it hurts!" one red-faced cadet screamed.
"Please give me a wet rag!" another pleaded.
"It is very severely painful, ma'am," another said, grimacing, to his training officer.
The cadets were not being disciplined, and they were not being hazed. Enduring a spritz of pepper spray is part of the six months of training that every Anne Arundel County police officer must undergo before getting a badge.
"It lets them know what their limitations are," said Andy Burger, an instructor at the Anne Arundel County police academy in Davidsonville. "If they are ever sprayed with OC, they know they can fight through it."
Pepper spray, or OC spray, is the name commonly used for oleoresin capsicum aerosol restraint spray. It is an all-natural blend of hot pepper and water that causes a burning sensation in the eyes and "temporary blindness ... difficulty with breathing, a burning sensation in the throat, nausea, lung pain and ... impaired thought process," according to the Police Department's written directive.
The effects are meant to be temporary, and oxygen dissipates the burning, so those sprayed are encouraged to open their eyes. However, their natural reaction is to close them.
After being sprayed last week, the cadets' partners yelled, "Blink, blink, blink, blink," encouraging them to open their eyes.
Arresting an unruly suspect can involve hand-to-hand combat. And, although rare, suspects sometime manage to use officers' weapons against them. Also, when pepper spray is used, officers sometimes get caught in an "overspray" when mist meant for a suspect hits an officer, said Richard Duvall, another instructor.
The training teaches cadets how to behave if they get sprayed in the field and puts them on alert that it is possible for a suspect to continue to resist after being sprayed.
The Anne Arundel County Police Department's use-of-force policy allows pepper spray to be used against suspects after officers gives verbal commands and the suspect appears ready to actively resist. If circumstances allow, officers are supposed to yell "pepper spray" or give the suspect some verbal warning before using the spray.
When a suspect is handcuffed, he can be sprayed if unruly. However, officers are required to use other, less aggressive, methods first. Officers are trained to avoid using pepper spray in crowded areas - such as movie theaters - where bystanders could be affected.
Different people have different reactions to the spray. Duvall said he was hardly affected by the substance when he was sprayed as a cadet. That's an important lesson for cadets, who need to know that in some cases suspects won't be affected, and officers need to be prepared to use other tactics when making a difficult arrest, Duvall said.
So, just before 3 p.m. Tuesday, on a steamy day when there was little wind, half of the cadets in the Anne Arundel County's 64th recruit class lined up and, one by one, faced a training officer who was armed with a canister of pepper spray. (The other cadets in the 13-member class were to undergo the same thing the next day.)
The training officer barked, "OC spray!" and then squirted the substance directly in the eyes of each trainee.
The cadets didn't seem to have an immediate reaction to the spray. At first they stood at attention and stoically took the burst of pepper without changing expression.
Then each had to fight three training officers, jabbing their knees into pads.
"Stop resisting! Stop resisting! Stop resisting! Stop resisting!" a female cadet screamed at the top of her lungs while kicking her training officer.
As she jabbed, it was clear from her voice that she was beginning to feel the effects of the spray.
She moved on to a second training officer, yelling the same refrain over and over while hitting him with her knee and punching a pad.
Finally, her face turning red, she confronted a third padded training officer and screamed, "County police," while pummeling him.
The last training officer held out a red rubber knife, a rubber model handgun or nothing at all. Cadets have to correctly identify the weapon, proving that they aren't fighting with their eyes shut.
Once the fighting was over, each cadet was grabbed by a partner and led several feet to where water and paper towels awaited them.
They rinsed their eyes and yelled in agony while their instructors encouraged them.
"None of your friends are going through this; they don't have the guts," instructor Butch Benner yelled. A few cadets managed to smile.
The female cadet, one of the last to be sprayed, was writhing in pain.
"You're coming back tomorrow. Right, Sterling?" an officer yelled at her.
The answer was affirmative.