Dead Heat

Despite the deaths of Aaron Williams and Mark Garcia, the SFPD continues to use pepper spray on suspects who stand a good chance of dying in custody.

San Francisco Medical Examiner Dr. Boyd Stephens concluded that Williams died from "excited delirium" -- a condition in which the highly drugged Williams suffered a heart attack because his cardiac system was overtaxed. There was no evidence of pepper spray in Williams' system, according to the medical examiner's report.

Attorneys Livingston and Kroll countered Stephens' findings with an autopsy of their own performed by Dr. Robert D. Lawrence. The Stockton pathologist declared that multiple factors were to blame for Williams' "fatal cardiac event" -- cocaine intoxication with violent toxic delirium; multiple exposures to pepper spray with resulting respiratory irritation; and the hogtie posture.

"There is no way to determine the exact relative importance of each factor," Dr. Lawrence wrote in his autopsy report. "However, it is reasonably medically certain that all factors played a role in the death, and that the combination of factors, rather than any one factor, resulted in death."

Pepper spray has been directly implicated in the deaths of two others who died in police custody. The North Carolina Medical Examiner's Office ruled that the 1993 death of Angelo Robinson was "precipitated" by the pepper spray Concord City police used to subdue him. And the South Carolina medical examiner listed pepper spray as a "contributing" factor in the death of Chad Cantor, who died in police custody in Mullins, S.C., in 1994.

Michael DiBartolomeis, who was forced to abandon his health-hazard assessment of pepper spray at OEHHA when funding was cut, maintains that more deaths might be attributed to pepper spray if medical examiners had a better idea what they were looking for.

"I spoke at length with several medical examiners who performed autopsies on some of the early fatalities associated with pepper spray; they couldn't rule out that pepper spray had a direct or indirect effect because they just didn't know what they were looking for in the autopsy," DiBartolomeis says. "There's nothing that you can really see that you can attribute to pepper spray. There are no red flags that tell you, 'This person died from pepper spray.' That's why more testing needs to be done."

Dr. Woodhall Stopford, a physician at Duke University Medical Center, has testified under oath that pepper spray can be dangerous. He acted as an expert witness on behalf of a North Carolina correctional officer who filed suit to exempt her from being pepper sprayed during a training session. "I believe that certain individuals run the risk of suffering adverse effects from pepper spray," says Dr. Stopford. "The results can be catastrophic."

And at least one manufacturer admits that pepper spray is not the harmless, organic product it is often made out to be.

"You have people who die after they have been sprayed," Steven Beazer told the Los Angeles Times last year. Beazer is president of Utah-based Advanced Technologies, one of about half a dozen major manufacturers of pepper spray devices. "Does pepper spray have a role in some of these deaths? I will say yes. It is going to have an effect. These are weapons," he told the Times. "Clearly, this is not a breath freshener or an underarm deodorant."

The Williams case illustrates the difficulty of determining the role of pepper spray in in-custody deaths across the country. Pepper spray is only one component of most of the deaths involving it. Police almost always use the weapon in conjunction with other restraint methods -- stun guns, handcuffs, or manual holds -- in a violent struggle with a suspect who is often overweight and under the influence of drugs. Some victims suffer from pre-existing medical conditions: asthma, bronchitis, or heart disease.

After Williams' death, then-Mayor Frank Jordan requested a probe of pepper spray use in the Police Department. A committee reviewed 34 past incidents and found no fault with the way officers used OC, but it did discover violations of some departmental policies on filing paperwork after some incidents.

Nevertheless, the SFPD revised its policy on the use of pepper spray. Under the new guidelines issued Oct. 5, 1995, officers were required to flush a suspect's eyes with water as soon as possible after the spraying; monitor the suspect during transport in an upright position; and provide medical attention prior to booking. Supervisors were required to arrange direct visual observation of the suspect until he or she was medically evaluated. An ambulance would be called if a suspect were having trouble breathing after being pepper sprayed. The new department guidelines also addressed how many times an officer should spray a suspect: "If it is observed that the suspect is hit in the eyes and mouth and no reaction is observed, the probability of the pepper spray effecting the suspect is minimal and additional applications are not recommended."

The in-custody death task force, formed shortly after Williams' death, submitted its findings to the Police Commission last week. The task force found no connection between pepper spray and any in-custody deaths in San Francisco. Task force member Dr. Marshall Issacs, medical director for the San Francisco Paramedics Division and the San Francisco Fire Department, told the commission there had been no deaths linked to pepper spray, despite the fact that state medical examiners in North and South Carolina have established that pepper spray was a contributing factor in two deaths. The bottom line is that the task force, despite convening for 10 months, did not recommend any changes in current SFPD policy regarding the use of pepper spray.

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