No Pepper Spray on Nonviolent Protesters 

(posted 4.11.05)

Major Newspaper Editorials Agree:
Q-Tip Pepper Spray Is Torture

A compilation of early editorials from three leading California newspapers after the October 31, 1997 release of police videotapes to media 

Pepper Spray Torture

San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, November 1, 1997 Page A18

The shocking videotapes of Humboldt County sheriff's deputies methodically squirting and daubing pepper spray into the eyes of non-violent protesters demands a full-scale investigation by Attorney General Dan Lungren.

The tapes were made public Thursday by nine anti-logging activists from Headquarters Forest Defense who filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff's department and the Eureka Police Department claiming their civil rights were violated by the "sadistic" use of pepper spray.

Perhaps there is a rational explanation why deputies had no other way to disperse the demonstrators except by applying liquid pepper spray with a cotton swab directly to their eyes, or holding them in headlocks while spraying them in the face at close range.

But no plausible justification has been offered; and the videotapes showed the deputies acting with the remorseless cruelty of police state Torquemadas, calmly applying the caustic spray as the protesters writhed, screamed and pleaded with them to stop.

If it was not torture, as the protesters claim, it came awfully close.

Amazingly, the damning videotapes were taken by deputies themselves at two sit-in protests -- one on October 16 at Representative Frank Riggs' Eureka office and another on September 25 in the Pacific Lumber Company office in Scotia. Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis and Eureka Police Chief Arnie Millsap appear to view the pepper spray incidents as business as usual, and Riggs argues the spray was used appropriately. It is clear a local investigation would go nowhere.

The FBI is already looking into possible civil rights violations. Attorney General Lungren should also investigate whether state laws against police brutality were broken. Then he should bring charges unless there are compelling justifications that were not apparent on those horrific videotapes.

Pepper Spray As Torture

San Francisco Examiner
Sunday, Nov. 2, 1997 Page C 8

The swabbing of passive protesters' eyes with concentrated pepper spray is one of the dumbest as well as cruelest police techniques we've heard of. The cops who used this method of forcing nonviolent demonstrators to submit to arrest in the offices of Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Windsor, and Pacific Lumber Co. have been sued in federal court. North Coast taxpayers who employ the Humboldt County sheriff's deputies and Eureka police face potentially sizable damage judgments for violation of the protesters' rights.

This misuse of pepper spray in circumstances involving no physical threat to officers or the public has been caught, shockingly, on videotape. Police recorded the scenes themselves as evidence against the anti-tree-cutting activists. The tapes then had to be provided to the accused trespassers' lawyers. Surprise: The cops' evidence is turned against them in the lawsuit.

To judge from the tapes as shown on TV news, they could overwhelm any police rationalization to a jury for directly applying pepper spray to immobilized protesters (including young females linked to each other around a tree stump). The stuff hurts. Its cold-blooded use by cops facing no threat to themselves is plainly inhumane.

To other police agencies tempted to thus punish the eyes of suspects to make them obedient, our advice is: Don't. Only lawsuits, outrage and ignominy will result.

On This One, The Jury Is In
Swabbing of pepper into protesters' eyes is a picture of brutality

Los Angeles Times
Monday, Nov. 3, 1997

A federal court will be asked to decide whether the civil rights of sit-in demonstrators were violated when law enforcement officers in Humboldt County methodically swabbed their eyes with liquid pepper spray after they refused an order to disperse. In the court of public opinion the verdict should already be clear.

To deliberately apply a highly irritating substance to protesters' eyes in a situation where officers faced no serious physical threat is an unwarranted and clearly impermissible use of force. Legal coercion must be proportionate to the threat involved. The provocation in this case--the refusal of demonstrators in two incidents to leave the lobby of an office building and the local office of a congressman--in no way sanctioned a use of force that was all but indistinguishable from torture.

An hour and a half of videotape documents the abusive use of force that took place. In one incident last Sept. 15, seven demonstrators who staged a sit-in in the lobby of the Pacific Lumber Co.'s headquarters in Scotia refused a police order to disband. Liquid pepper spray was then rubbed into the eyes of four. In a second incident three women who occupied the Eureka office of Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor) were similarly punished when they refused to leave. The demonstrators were opposing plans for logging redwoods in the Headwaters Forest.

The liquid form of pepper spray is a new weapon in the arsenal of law enforcement. Apparently legal precedents regarding when or even if it can be properly used have not been set. But the nature of this weapon, and the serious and perhaps permanent damage it can do, certainly should rule out its use in the two instances, which have given rise to a federal criminal probe as well as the civil rights suit. A jury viewing the videotape ought to have no problem coming to that conclusion.

Dan Lungren's Silence On Pepper-Spray Video

San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, November 7, 1997 Page A26

It is difficult to fathom state Attorney General Dan Lungren's inaction on the appalling videotapes of Humboldt County sheriff's deputies smearing caustic pepper spray directly into the eyes of anti-logging protesters.

A vigilant attorney general could not have missed the televised clips showing burly deputies applying the spray as protesters screamed and writhed in pain.

The video images were reminiscent of the jackbooted violence used to keep order in Third World dictatorships.

Lungren should immediately investigate the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department's disgraceful misuse of pepper spray as a sadistic law enforcement tool.

Justifying Torture
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.

Abuses such as torture-by-pepper-spray just make cops' jobs that much harder. The most pervasive permanent harm is that ordinary citizens lose respect for police.

Lungren's Nothing To Sneeze At

San Francisco Examiner
Thursday, Nov. 20, 1997 Page A 26

When Dan Lungren speaks, it's pretty hard for law enforcement officials to dismiss him as some left-wing nutball. So, Humboldt County sheriff's officers and Eureka police ought to pay attention to the state attorney general's perspective on the use of pepper spray.

Those two agencies are embroiled in a federal court fight over their treatment last month of nonviolent protesters - swabbing a liquid form of pepper spray into their eyes and spraying it at close range into their faces.

In a letter to state senators this week, Lungren said those "very unusual applications" of pepper spray were "in conflict" with state guidelines. He might have added, but did not, that police use of pepper spray as an offensive weapon is plain dumb.

Lungren thinks laws, rules and guidelines should be obeyed. So do we. Pepper spray has its legitimate uses. Torturing citizens isn't one of them.

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