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RUPD arms officers with pepper spray

By Asiya Kazi     1/27/14 6:00pm

The Rice University Police Department now uses pepper spray as a nonlethal use-of-force option, according to Chief of Police Johnny Whitehead. The only nonlethal use-of-force option RUPD officers had previously was the baton. Upon noticing several incidents in which suspects resisted arrest or assaulted RUPD officers, Whitehead asked RUPD staff to research other use-of-force options.

According to Whitehead, many police departments around the country have added tasers and pepper spray besides batons. After finding research that showed pepper spray reduces injuries those involved, RUPD conferred with university officials and was given permission to deploy pepper spray in October 2013, Whitehead said.

"In December, our officers received training in the use of OC Spray," Whitehead said. "The training included guidelines for appropriate use of OC Spray and how to treat a person exposed to OC Spray."  

Now, RUPD officers carry 1.47-ounce canisters of pepper spray, which they may use to protect themselves or others from physical harm and to control resisting suspects, according to Whitehead.

Martel College freshman Neethi Nayak said she thinks using pepper spray infringes on suspects' rights in some ways, but understands why it may be necessary. 

"If they're having a lot of trouble, if there's not an alternative, then that might be the way to go," Nayak said. "But it kind of freaks me out a little bit. It's kind of a vulnerable moment for people since it's your personal space, your body." 

Jones College sophomore Sameer Kini said he accepts police officers using pepper spray on an irregular basis. 

"If the situation warrants it, I think it's fine," Kini said. "I don't think it should be abused by the officer, the right to use pepper spray."  

Whitehead said a policy called the Use of Force Continuum governs the usage of pepper spray, such that the level of force used by the officer depends on the level of resistance by the suspect.

"When making an arrest, officers try to gain compliance using their presence and verbal directions," Whitehead said. "If that fails, the officer may have to become physical by grabbing or pulling the suspect. If the suspect continues to resist or becomes assaultive, the officer's response may escalate to the use of a non-lethal weapon such as the baton or OC spray."

"Anytime [pepper] spray is used by an officer, the incident is reviewed by a supervisor and the findings submitted to the chief of police," Whitehead said.

Kini said he thinks pepper spray would be more effective than batons for officers to send a strong message to suspects. 

"If you're going to take down a suspect, it's going to be more painful to them to use pepper spray, and it's probably a more effective tool [than batons] if someone is out of control," Kini said.  

Nayak said she thinks batons might be more effective than pepper spray in obtaining a suspect's cooperation. 

"If the suspect is violent, then it comes to the point where the police officer's safety is in question as well," Nayak said. "I feel like with pepper spray, you might get a more negative response from the suspect. It's more agitation. It's not just 'Listen to me!' kind of thing, it's more like 'I'm in your face right now.'"

According to Whitehead, the use of pepper spray is potentially useful in situations involving more dangerous criminals. 

"Many of the suspects our officers encounter have no affiliation with Rice, have extensive criminal histories, are on parole or probation and have a history of assaulting officers and resisting arrests," Whitehead said. "Although it is rare that our officers have to use force beyond verbal commands or hands-on tactics [for] an arrest, the use of [pepper] spray is prudent, safe and effective."

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