City Council should not let Berkeley police use pepper spray at protests

CITY AFFAIRS: Pepper spray as a tool can too easily turn into an unnecessary and excessive use of force by police.

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Kelly Baird/Staff

This afternoon, Berkeley City Council needs to vote “no” on allowing the Berkeley Police Department to use pepper spray as a crowd-control tool.

City Council, at the request of police chief Andrew Greenwood, is considering lifting a 1997 ban on the use of this chemical irritant to control demonstrations and protests. But adding weapons to police’s artillery is not the answer, and it would likely only serve to escalate harm and injury.

Pepper spray became a popular “less lethal” tool in the 1990s. It is seen as an intermediary: an alternative to using batons or releasing tear gas to subdue violent protesters, which affects a larger area populated with more people.

UC Berkeley students and city residents are no strangers to fraught interactions with Berkeley police, whether during protests at city council meetings or spillover from protests on campus. At this moment, Berkeley is a battleground for extremist groups, particularly those who subscribe to and encourage white supremacist ideology. Pepper spray is an alternative that too easily can turn into an unnecessary and excessive use of force by police.

It became very clear in 2011 just how easily pepper spray as a tool can be abused, when Occupy Movement demonstrations spread across UC campuses. A UC Davis police officer became widely — and rightly — criticized when they pulled a cannister and pepper-sprayed a row of protesting students point-blank.

According to Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguín and a report prepared by Greenwood, pepper spray is a law enforcement industry-standard tool that is used by virtually every major police agency in the United States.

Claiming “industry-standard” in a conversation about proper use of force and police conduct is, at best, an ironic joke. People in Berkeley have made it clear that the police force here needs to be better than the national standard.

Characterizing pepper spray as “intermediary” or “nonlethal” does not erase its potential for injury. A 2004 study cited in KQED states that pepper spray can induce respiratory, cardiac and neurologic problems.

And a stipulation that the police must file a report and ensure victims of pepper-spraying receive medical attention is not comforting. Use of equipment in an irresponsible manner is not uncommon in moments of high tension. If the police have more tools, they will use them.

As Berkeley, the city and the campus, works to address the onslaught of white supremacists and counterprotests, the first, obvious course of action is to call a town hall or forum to solicit feedback from the community.

Instead, the city chose to hastily plan a special meeting at a time when many members of the community are still at work: 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. There’s been plenty of time to prepare for Ben Shapiro’s campus event and Free Speech Week. There’s no excuse for emergency, last-minute decisions.

In the case that City Council votes to approve the use of pepper spray as a crowd-control tactic, here are some tips for managing exposure to pepper spray, straight from UCPD’s website:

  • Avoid panic.
  • Do not rub the face. This will aggravate the pain already being experienced.
  • The best immediate treatment is to expose the person to fresh air — in a breezy area, if possible. A fan can also be used.
  • Flush the affected area with cool water either from the tap or a garden hose.
  • Clean the affected area with non-oil or cold cream based soap. Do not use salves or greases on exposed area, because it will trap tear gas particles or OC resin onto the skin.
  • If eyes are exposed, flush copiously with cool, fresh water for 15 minutes.
  • If you wear contact lenses, remove them carefully once hands are thoroughly clean.
  • An ophthalmic examination should be performed by a physician if irritation or pain persists after 15 minutes of flushing with water.
  • Clothing that is contaminated with tear gas should be removed immediately and, if indoors, placed in a sealed plastic bag or container
  • Persons assisting the subject should wear rubber gloves to avoid residual contamination.
  • If any irritation or pain persists after decontamination procedures, a physician should examine the exposed area.

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  • Robin of Hood

    I think the decision has been made and pepper spray issued. Guess what the anti first amendment protestors stayed away. Maybe standing up to bullies does work.

  • Jack Spencer

    You make no mention of ANTIFA whatsoever, or seem to care thet they come armed themselves with pepper spray and use it. What kind of irresponsable jounalism is this?

  • vincent

    This is a very irresponsible and short sighted position to take. If you remove a non-lethal option to disperse a crowd that is becoming violent and refusing lawful orders to vacate an area you are increasing the likelihood that things will escalate to the point where greater force will be required, potentially even lethal force. I am all for better training and clearer rules of force escalation, but as much as I despise protestors who resort to violence instead of speech to convey their message, I would rather they be dispersed with pepper spray as opposed to bullets.

  • Greg Connors

    Our company has agreed NOT TO HIRE any more Berkeley students at this time. It’s just not worth the drama.

    • Bob Bell

      I think this is a very short-sighted view. Berkeley produces some of the finest scientists, engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians and economists in the world, and they would be an asset to any company. Of course, if you hire someone who majored in anything ending with the word “Studies”, you’re an idiot and deserve what you get.

  • kevtop53

    The “No Free Speech University.”

  • J Nicholas Gross

    Right! because Antifa hates competition, the cops should stick with idle threats and bad language!