Sunday, April 4, 2010

I get Pepper Sprayed --

Here's a newspaper story I wrote back in the year 2000. I volunteered to experience pepper spraying as part of getting a news story. It was an interesting experience. The photos seem to be gone, lost to history perhaps.


Pepper spray: A little dab'll do 'ya

Mitch Wojnarowicz/The Recorder

Corrections officer Phil Spencer Jr. helps Recorder reporter Peter Huston after he experienced a shot of pepper spray.

Mitch Wojnarowicz/The Recorder

Montgomery County Corrections officer Don Gardner explains the different types of pepper spray and spray neutralizers.


Recorder News Staff

TOWN OF GLEN - It's been less than an hour and the details of my pepper spraying are already starting to fade and blur.

We stand in a garage at the Montgomery County Jail. Three corrections officers, a nurse, Mitch Wojnarowicz, The Recorder photographer, and myself.

I do as instructed, stand in the middle of the garage. Don Gardner, a state certified pepper spray instructor and Montgomery County Corrections Officer, pulls out a spray canister of the debilitating gas. He points it at my face from about 12 feet away.

I try to do as told and he begins to count to three.


I do nothing.


I try to hold my breath. Nervous, I begin to wonder if I'm really holding my breath or not.


He sprays and I close my eyes involuntarily despite being told it will do no good.

It hits me, the spray, ending my confusion. A pain washes over me, becoming all encompassing, but doesn't quite hurt. At least there's not a feeling of pain. That comes later, and in large doses. Instead, there's more of an involuntary freezing up as your body struggles to adjust to this sudden sensory overload.

My eyes shut tightly and the burning begins. I feel hands on my arms and realize that the corrections officers are guiding me over to the eyewash station. I let them. Trying to find my bearings, never quite doing so. I'm starting to hurt.

My eyes are burning and my chest is starting to hurt.

I'm being led like a baby. I need their help to find the eye wash station. I am in pain, burning eyes, burning flushed skin, respiratory problems.

If this was a real struggle, if I were fighting these people instead of being helped by them, they'd win easily. Perhaps I could thrash around, but not effectively, and I can't see. And I'm dependent on them to get to the eyewash station.

If this were a real struggle, if I were the subject of a law enforcement pepper spraying, there would be no nearby eyewash station.

There would also have been two bursts of spray to the eyes, not one.

One is the normal amount for guard training.

Instead I would soon find myself rolling on the ground, perhaps handcuffed, perhaps thrown in the back of a police car. Wondering when the pain would go away and if there would be permanent effects.

They tell me to step up.

I find myself at the eye station. I open my eyes and begin rinsing. The pain has grown worse however.

My chest gets tight. I struggle to breath. I wheeze. I wonder if I will continue to breath. Will I stop breathing? If I do will I become resuscitated? Will I die?

I struggle for breath.

The breathing becomes easier.

Okay, I'll live.

The pain in my eyes has become worse.

I rinse.

It becomes better.

I feel flushed burning pain on my forehead and my neck. Fortunately, I'd skipped shaving that morning. They said if I had the pain would be worse as the hot pepper juice soaked into my pores.

We wash my eyes in the eye wash station. I love the eye wash station. It is a wonderful thing.

Periodically, I try to get up and leave the eye wash station. When I do, the pain returns, coming back, burning worse, I wash my eyes, my chin, my forehead, trying to get the juice off of my body. I don't like the way it's burning me. I cannot control myself.

I keep having to return to the eye wash station.

I blow my nose several times into a paper towel. I wipe myself several times with a towel.

One question they ask people in pepper spray training is to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I don't think it hurts that much. The problem is it doesn't go away.

I wash in the eye wash station. It reduces. The pain becomes a three. I feel better. I try to walk around the garage so that people will see I am in control of myself. So that I will see I am in control of myself.

It doesn't work. The pain, once a three, soon becomes a four, then a five. I return to the friendly eyewash station because I don't want to experience a six.

The pattern repeats. I burn. I hurt. I hold my eyelids open and put my precious eyes into the stream of lovely flowing easing water.

I am happy and feel better.

The pain is now a three. Then it starts to climb back up.

I wash my eyes again, feeling lucky that I was pepper sprayed in a garage and not a jail cell or street corner.

Officers Eric Schnackenberg, Don Gardner, and Phil Spencer attended my pain, assisting me as necessary. They, like most corrections officers, have experienced the same pain, the same loss of control, the same fear and uncertainty about one's future that I have.

Gardner, the instructor, said he's been sprayed four times.

This is the world of pepper sprays and modern law enforcement.

According to the book, "Pepper Sprays -Practical Self Defense for Anyone, Anywhere," by Doug Lamb (1994, Paladin Press, Boulder CO), although pepper spray weapons have been in existence for over 35 years, their common deployment and usage has only happened in the last 15 to 20 years. The work says that the reason behind the rapid rise in usage, both among law enforcement and civilians, is due to the widespread need to have a non-lethal method of self defense that works regardless of any differences in strength or fighting ability between two combatants.

Compared to such lethal or potentially lethal devices as firearms or batons, the advantage to pepper spray is obvious.

Unlike tear gas, the sprays are directed and do not blow around unnecessarily

Montgomery County Sheriff Michael Amato said that his department began using pepper spray for jail guards in 1996 and within a year was using it for the road patrol deputies. He said he has never been pepper sprayed himself.

"If I buy a new gun do I need to shoot myself?" he explained, laughing.

Pepper sprays, as the name implies, are made to spray gas made by hot peppers. The intensity of hot peppers is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU's), named after Wilbur Scoville who invented the scale in 1902.

For comparisons, Bell Peppers have a Scoville rating of 0.0, Jalapenos have a 2.5 to a 5.0 thousand , Cayenne's have a 30 to 50 thousand, and Habanero's have a rating of 100-300 thousand SHU's. Most defensive sprays contain a liquid that contains a 5 or 10 percent concentrate of a liquid that is measured at 2 million SHU's. Sometimes the liquid is in the form of a foam. According to Lamb, one manufacturer considered manufacturing a spray with a strength of 3 million SHU's but was advised not to as such a strength could cause tissue damage.

Nevertheless, the sprays do have critics. According to the spring 1996 issue of Covert Action Quarterly, a magazine that frequently criticizes law enforcement practices, the sprays have been involved in 60 deaths since 1990.

Although proponents of the sprays argue that such cases either involved using the sprays on persons who were on stimulants, such as cocaine or amphetamines, the article charges that their use is unsafe on persons who have asthma or other severe respiratory conditions.

In the correctional facility, where medical records on inmates are known, it is not permitted to pepper spray asthmatic or other inmates with respiratory problems under any circumstances, according to Eric Schnackenberg.

The same article charges that in some cases of police brutality the sprays have been used to inflict pain for its own sake on prisoners, including hand cuffed prisoners. According to the article, some citizens groups an the American Civil Liberties Union have questioned the use of the sprays.

For these reasons it is common practice to recommend to law enforcement personnel being trained in the use of pepper spray techniques and tactics that they actually experience its use first hand.

Amato said that he has not heard of any problems with the use of the sprays and that he expects the department to keep using them for some time.


  1. Well I want to be a police and now that you wrote that I'm kind of regreting it. If you close your eyes does it help

  2. No, closing your eyes does not help. The chemicals are already in your eyes producing a reaction.

    Peter Huston

  3. A couple links on the health hazards of pepper spray:

  4. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.
    pepper spray