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NYPD Pepper Spray Tactical Bulletin
After last summer's unrest, NYPD's Training Bureau issues a refresher on the proper use of OC spray
This is the first post in the “NYPD Docs Clearinghouse,” a special edition of DocuDrop. Stay tuned for new NYPD documents every day this week.
Last June, the NYPD had one of the most difficult months in its modern history. It began with citywide mass protests and multiple nights of wide-scale riot. No officer then on the force had ever experienced anything remotely similar – nothing like it had happened since 1977 – and their handling was a multi-pronged failure, where brutality was misdirected on political protesters while rioters got a free pass to run rampage. By the time July rolled around there had been a lull in the unrest, giving the NYPD time to re-evaluate its tactics.
Particularly, the NYPD was criticized for its improper use of OC spray. OC spray, commonly called pepper spray, is a chemical irritant meant to temporarily decapacitate non-compliant individuals for arrest. Its use has very specific parameters which were ignored repeatedly last summer. A famous example was when a police officer randomly sprayed an innocent bystander as he ran past him on the sidewalk. Another example includes when an officer pulled down a protester’s Coronavirus mask to spray him in the face at close range. Some officers were disciplined, likely others were not. But what the video evidence shows by and far was that the NYPD rarely used its OC spray to its tactical specification.
When civil disorder retraining began in July, one thing the NYPD tried to correct was its officers’ amateur OC usage. To help this along, the Firearms and Tactics Section prepared a tactical refresher for NYPD's Training Bureau. The document, a "Tactical Awareness Bulletin," is interesting for a number of reasons. It provides a look into the police psychology. It gives useful tactical advice even a civilian can use for self-defense (OC spray is available on the civilian market). But, unfortunately, even this document is flawed, through various omissions and contradictions with other training materials, some of which could potentially lead to serious injury.
The biggest danger from the misuse of OC spray is something called the "hydraulic needle effect." This occurs when the spray nozzle is discharged too close to a subject's eyes. A pressurized stream of liquid with enough impact force can cause ruptures in the eyeball similar to the way an actual needle might. The hydraulic needle effect causes tissue damage even if the spray is just water – but with OC, a chemical similar to but far more potent than the compounds that give hot peppers their kick, the likelihood of internal eye injury is more severe. The tactical bulletin acknowledges this danger, and prescribes that officers not use OC spray closer than three feet from the subject's eyes (“unless a concern for Serious Physical Injury is present”) .
But, training material published in The Intercept from the NYPD's Strategic Response Group, the NYPD's riot force, places this minimum distance at six feet. Which is the safe distance? And which distance will officer's adhere to in the heat of a civil disorder? This is not clear. The bulletin states that the maximum effective range of the OC spray is 12 feet.
The document also pays some attention to potential medical complications, but lacks the specificity of the earlier SRG training. The bulletin opens with, "When used properly Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray can be an effective deterrent to ward off or diminish physical threats posed by persons and animals. This is because OC spray may cause inflammation of the mucus membrane and upper respiratory tract." A casual reading would imply that inflammation should be expected. And it might – to an extent. But the SRG training elaborates that the presentation of eye mucous after OC exposure is grounds for immediate medical treatment, as well as ringing or pain of the ears, which the bulletin also fails to mention. The tactical bulletin lists other symptoms that indicate a medical emergency, but omit these crucial ones.
For the bulletin's limited attention to "aftercare," and it's instruction to call EMS, there is one other notable omission. The SRG training documents reveal that officers have access to counter-OC agents which can be applied to neutralize the painful effects, in spray and wipe form. The SRG training states that these counter agents should be used by officers accidentally exposed. The privilege, it seems, is reserved only for the police. There are other decontamination instructions in the SRG training omitted by the tactical bulletin, such as the instruction not to use oils, creams, and lotions as a treatment.
If you are looking for some tactical advice yourself on how to more effectively use self-defense spray, this bulletin has nuggets of wisdom for you. "Do not rush forward while spraying, you might run into aerosol that is still in the air. Wait about two seconds and read the body language of the subject." Another one, "If the subject wants to attack after their eyes are shut due to being affected by the OC spray, it is likely they will charge towards where they last saw you. Spray and move. Try to move laterally, not backward (trip hazard)." When under attack, blinding yourself or tripping backwards can be fatal mistakes.
And finally, the document provides insight into the cold and tactical mind of the department. Although it is department policy that the use of force is never to punish, that does not imply that the infliction of pain is merely incidental. The document concludes, "OC spray is not intended to cause immediate incapacitation, but gives UMOS a tactical advantage by interfering with the subject’s visual and respiratory system while potentially causing an inward focus on pain."
Stay tuned tomorrow for day two of NYPD Docs Clearinghouse!
Photo: A US marine getting shot in the face with OC spray. From the NYPD training document