This video of a petrified 15 year old girl being pepper sprayed in the back of a police car has been making the rounds. It's a complicated story. The girl hit a car with her bicycle. The cops showed and tried to talk to her, she got scared and tried to ride away and when they stopped and detained her she got hysterical and non-compliant. The cops handcuffed her and put her to the ground, finally decided to take her to the station and wrestled her in the back of their cruiser. She was screaming and crying and as they were trying to close the door on the car as she writhed in the back, one of the officers who had arrived late to the scene put his hand through the window and said if she didn't "get in the car" she was going to get sprayed. And then he sprayed her with pepper spray right in the face. While she was handcuffed and could not wipe her eyes.
They had her in the car. She was not a danger to anyone. She was emotionally overwrought and needed to be calmed and soothed not further agitated. Indeed, she might have even been injured for all they knew.
Pepper spraying her was a punitive act of torture.
And the police department says it was all good police work.
This episode reminds me of this post from long ago which continues to haunt me whenever I see pepper spray being used up-close by police:
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Yes of course pepper spray is a torture device
The hideous pepper spraying of college students at UC Davis yesterday reminds me of a similar case in the 90s, which I've written about several times before.
In 1997, environmentalists were staging a sit-in against the cutting of old forest in Humboldt county. The police sprayed pepper spray directly into the protesters eyes in similar fashion to what happened in UC yesterday and then used liquified pepper spray and applied it directly to the protesters eyes with q-tips. I'm not kidding. There's video:
I was writing about the use of tasers when I wrote this piece back in 2009:
Why is it that the taser videos always show a bunch of cops sauntering around, three or four of them bent over a prone person in handcuffs, blithely administering the taser as if they are merely wiping a speck of dust off the suspects shirt? I think that's the part I find so chilling --- it's so methodical, so cold, so completely inhuman --- that it seems like something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel featuring robots or aliens.
I'll never forget the horror of seeing the video of those environmental protesters having their eyes calmly swabbed with Q tips soaked in liquid pepper spray, by the Humboldt County sheriffs dept. In searching for the video I came across this San Francisco Examiner editorial from 1997, that could be written today about tasers:
Law enforcement arguments in a federal lawsuit are malarkey - pepper spray used senselessly hurts cops as much as protesters
San Francisco Examiner
Monday, Nov. 17, 1997 Page A 18
It's almost farcical for law enforcement officials to continue defending pepper spray as a weapon to get protesters to follow orders. A videotape of officers applying pepper spray in liquid form to demonstrators' eyes shows the technique to be a form of torture.
Yet, attorneys for the Humboldt County Sheriff and the Eureka Police Department argue in federal court that this use of pepper spray is legitimate and unobjectionable. In court papers filed in a protesters' suit against the cops, police training expert Joseph J. Callahan Jr. says, implausibly, that the videotape could be used as a training film "illustrating modern police practices delivered in a calm, deliberate manner." (Remind us not to volunteer as guinea pigs for Mr. Callahan.)
The videotape was shot by Humboldt sheriff's deputies at an Oct. 16 demonstration, against logging in the Headwaters Forest, that took place in the Eureka office of Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Windsor. Four women who had chained themselves together with heavy metal "black bears" got liquid pepper spray rubbed into their eyes with cotton swabs, and one woman who refused even then to move had the pepper mist sprayed into her face.
This hurts, as the videotaped reactions make clear. But it broke up the demonstration pronto, and that's what counted for the law enforcers.
"At stake," attorneys for the cops argue, "is whether professionally trained police officers are to be deprived of the use of pepper spray, a substance carried by millions of private citizens in this country."
But this is really not the issue. Most people don't object to police using pepper spray the way it's designed to be used: To subdue a suspect who threatens officers or threatens to flee. Neither occurred in the case of the Eureka protesters.
Police shouldn't use pepper spray, or any other weapon, to dish out punishment to suspects. Just because cops are in a hurry doesn't make it OK for them to take shortcuts, or inflict pain to get things done.
The argument doesn't wash that no lasting damage was done by the pepper spray. By the same logic, police could use branding irons, sharp knives or psychological abuse on recalcitrant protesters as long as "no lasting damage was done."
Other police legal arguments are similarly shallow. An attorney for the cops said the use of heavy metal sleeves linked with chains that made protesters virtually immovable amounted to "active resistance," justifying the use of pepper spray.
In the past, police used metal grinders to cut through the heavy metal in order to oust demonstrators. That takes longer and is inconvenient, but it doesn't violate anyone's civil rights or threaten their physical well-being.
No one wants to live in a society where police are free to do whatever they wish in order to punish suspected law breakers. Cruel and unusual punishment is outlawed by the Constitution. And anyway, punishment is up to the courts to determine and the penal system to administer.
What cops risk through indiscriminate use of pepper spray, and its indiscriminate defense in court, is losing it altogether. If police are too dense to distinguish between legitimate use and torture, the Legislature should eliminate any confusion and outlaw pepper spray, period.
That holds true for all weapons that can be used for torture.
It took three tries and eight years, but the protesters finally won their case against the police in federal court. They were awarded a dollar.
An article called "Pepper Spray, Pain and Justice" from the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project in northern California on the use of pepper stray as a torture device gives all the details of this famous case.
It tells the harrowing story that you see in that video up top, including the chilling statement by the police after they were done pepper spraying one of the girls directly in the face: "We're not torturing you anymore."
It asks the question:
Are these valid tactics for the DA's office to use? May the Sheriff and the DA single out forest activists for "special treatment" when they are arrested and charged? The argument for this would be that the protests are costly to the county, and in an effort to contain those costs by reducing the number of protesters, or to prevent nonviolent civil disobedience which is expensive to the government, the government may use its discretionary powers to make the experience these activists have with the criminal justice system as unpleasant and costly as possible. The use of pepper spray to torment activists who are nonviolently sitting-in can be seen as the latest and most extreme step in this campaign.
The difficulty with this approach is that it puts the Sheriff and the DA into the position of the judge. It metes out punishment -- pain, days in jail, costly trips to court, disruption of normal life -- without the bother of proving guilt. Did the Queen in Alice in Wonderland say, "First the sentence, then the trial"? Even children can see that this is backwards.