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Opinion: OC is a safe alternative
By Barry Evert, Sergeant
Published: 12/31/2007

Whenever an effective less lethal tool comes to market, there are always going to be those that want to eliminate it before it ever gets a chance to work. Oleoresin Capsicum, or OC, has been an exception up until recently. Reading the article by Ann Coppola ( Heated interpretations, 12/13/07) in the Correction Connection e-newsletter brought that to light.

Usually opposition to less lethal options comes out of ignorance of the facts, and this is a prime example. First, we need to look at what the less lethal weapon was designed to do, and how it accomplishes it.

OC is a food grade weapon that is designed to hamper sight and breathing. The results are temporary, lasting less than ten minutes, and are almost always effective. Earlier irritants like mace were ineffective and chemically manufactured. OC, in theory, could be consumed safely, without long lasting harmful effects.

As with any irritant, there are those that can suffer serious consequences as a result of exposure, but these are few and far extreme medical conditions. Respiratory illnesses are the most commonly aggravated by OC, so great care needs to be used to minimize OC’s exposure to those people, although very few serious injuries have occurred as a result of exposure, even to the most seriously ill of people.

Positional Asphyxia was the second most common form of injury from the use of OC. Almost all departments now restrict an officer from placing a suspect on their stomach, or otherwise restrict breathing, after OC exposure. Simply said, the one in a million chance of something going wrong has all but been eliminated through minor policy changes.

Having said that, I point to the part of the article where an “expert” states his fear that OC will be used too often. Again this person seems to be ignorant of law enforcement policies that dictate the reporting of use of force, and the constant barrage of scrutiny we face on almost every use of force incident. His theory is failed in that he did not account for reporting systems in place. If OC is used, it must be justified just as any other use of force, and believe me, few of us enjoy going to Internal Affairs for tea and crumpets, so the use of OC is limited to law and policy.

The fear that somehow OC is more harmful to juveniles is also one of ignorance and lack of fact. With the exception of infants, there are no studies to indicate that juveniles are affected differently than adults. The real issue at hand here is the psychological barrier most people have against using any kind of force on our children at all. This is an understandable, knee-jerk, reaction for those who have never been to a juvenile detention center. The fact is that juveniles, mainly between the ages of 13 to 17, are often more prone to physical violence than their adult counterparts. All one needs to do is look up the incidents of staff assaults and violence against each other in a juvenile facility to understand this.

Most people imagine an innocent child being man-handled by officers when they think of using force on juveniles. Again, the fact is that many of these kids are in detention for outrageously violent crimes, and are prone to repeat them while incarcerated, due partly to their immaturity, and partly to their mentality as a criminal. Make no mistake, the ones referred to here are not in detention or on a scholarship. Many are hardened criminals by age 17, and require close monitoring and extreme caution. Simply turn on your news and read about the latest high school shooting to verify this.

Now that we have established the tool, its designed intent, and the people it’s used on in this article, we can move on to the “Use of Force” issues addressed.

The bottom line is this: As the use of OC increases, injury to both officers and offenders decreases. This has been proven in private and government study repeatedly. If the public finds horror in officers applying OC to a juvenile offender, imagine their horror when four or five officers have to wrestle the same juvenile into restraints. I think when properly informed, and shown a video of both tactics, even the most bleeding heart person would find OC to be more humane than most other options.

The representative from Ohio is making a serious mistake by discounting OC from his arsenal. Even though the injury rates among officers and offenders in Ohio may be low, this could be lowered by the introduction of OC. To further restrict officers the option of using this tool is a miserable ignorance of the facts.

The fact is that OC is no different than physical force in the use of force continuum. Why would we then restrict OC use to a last resort? It sounds like the new policy would rather create injury to both parties first before rendering the offender harmless and simply applying restraints and decontaminating him. Why not apply the OC first, apply restraints, decontaminate the individual, and move on with our day without injury to anyone?

It’s like telling officers they must use their left hand before using their right hand to restrain an inmate to minimize injury. Both policies would be baseless in fact and years of past experience. The minimum criteria remain the same for the use of OC or physical holds: The offender must pose some type of threat to himself or others before we use force. There would be no other time we would use OC anyway, so why add this extra verbiage to the use of force policy to confuse both officers and offenders?

The last resort of force moves into the lethal force spectrum, something we hope never to have to apply. The use of OC has no long lasting effects, and almost never causes injury to the offender or officer. I suggest skeptics of this expose themselves to OC first, then the next day offer to be wrestled to the ground by numerous officers, and then make a decision about OC.

We need to be careful that in our quest for safety and security of our youngest offenders, we don’t appease people who have no real grasp of what a detention center is really like. Any officer with any real experience will tell you OC is the greatest, safest tool we have ever been equipped with. If we continue down this road of appeasement, we will find ourselves back in 1970’s corrections, where injury to self and others was an expected, accepted, daily occurrence. I doubt anyone wants this. Speak out against these types of policies, simply by arming yourself with fact. The greatest tool against ignorance is the presentation of fact.

Sgt. Barry Evert began his corrections career in 1999, and is now a Correctional Sergeant at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. He has been with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for eight years. His specialty lies in teaching, tactical emergency response, riot tactics and officer safety improvement.

He is a firm believer that a good home life breeds a good officer, and is currently writing a book, which supports that idea and details the essential skills and techniques new COs should learn in the first two years of their job.

Other articles by Evert:

Know your body language, 8/1/07

Treating an infection within, 7/11/07


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