Reports indicate spotty record for pepper spray use in Berkeley

Rae Zhuang/Staff

Officers from Berkeley Police Department reported that pepper spray has only proved effective half of the time since January 2011, according to recent incident reports.

A series of incident reports — the most recent released Jan. 10 — show that in only five of 10 cases in which pepper spray was used, it helped immediately detain the suspect.

Berkeley police officers primarily used pepper spray when apprehending a suspect who proved threatening to an officer or surrounding civilians, as in cases of burglary, according to the reports. Of the 10 cases, the paramedics were called in nine times to administer first aid to the pepper-sprayed suspects.

In one of the instances when the reports indicate pepper spray was used effectively, the arresting officer was pursuing a suspect who was fleeing from a home that he had allegedly burglarized. After police caught up to the suspect and demanded he get on the ground, the suspect refused, according to the report.

According to the incident report, the arresting officer responded by pepper spraying the suspect in the face from a distance of about 10 feet. The suspect then complied with officers’ requests of arrest, according to the report.

Although the reports indicate a 50 percent effectiveness rate — with five out of the 10 reports indicating the use of pepper spray was effective — the department has no plans to change policy or procedures regarding pepper spray, according to Berkeley Police Department Sgt. Mary Kusmiss.

In one of the incidents in which the use of pepper spray was considered ineffective, an arresting officer pepper sprayed a suspect in an attempt to dissuade the suspect from fighting the officer. Following the use of the spray, the suspect allegedly lunged toward the arresting officer, punched him twice and tackled him to the ground, according to the reports.

In the incident reports, the department considered pepper spray use effective when its application facilitated handcuffing or any other form of detaining the suspect, Kusmiss said in an email.

According to Kusmiss, the department’s policy states that officers are prohibited from using pepper spray in crowd control situations.

The city’s Police Review Board Commission is currently reviewing the department’s use of force guidelines and will discuss them at its meeting Wednesday.

Systemwide, University of California police have recently come under fire for the use of pepper spray, most notably at an Occupy protest at UC Davis in November.

According to UCPD Lt. Alex Yao, UCPD policy allows officers to use pepper spray on protesters who do not comply with the lawful command.

“Once they resist or fail to comply, the suspects are disobeying and are therefore obstructing justice,” he said. “This act warrants officer use of batons and/or pepper spray.”

Currently, the Berkeley Police Department’s mutual aid agreement with UCPD is technically ineffective because it was not reapproved by the Berkeley City Council following criticism surrounding the campus department’s response to protests.

Jonathan Tam covers crime.