By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
Mark Garcia's well-being centered on one thing -- staying off crack cocaine. He kept the small Millbrae apartment he shared with his former wife and two daughters obsessively clean as he struggled to maintain control over a life that had very recently lacked any semblance of order. Garcia proudly displayed what looked like poker chips, which he had earned from Narcotics Anonymous (NA), in a neat pattern on top of a stereo speaker in his cramped living room. The markers were milestones of time spent clean and sober -- one day, six months, one year -- and much more valuable than gambling winnings. When Garcia earned a chip commemorating his second year off drugs, he wore it around his neck on a gold chain.
Garcia inaugurated every morning with a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and a reading from a book of daily affirmations while a Kenny G or Sade CD played in the background. It may sound like a skit from Saturday Night Live, but the ritual worked for the 41-year-old. He was so opposed to -- and fearful of -- drugs that he wouldn't even touch a mild prescription painkiller for a recent toothache. Garcia dutifully attended NA meetings five days a week, sponsored a handful of other people in recovery, and regularly spoke at drug rehabilitation centers.
The routine helped turn Garcia's life around. He salvaged a troubled relationship with his former wife, graduated from trucking school, and started working again. But as with many addicts, the craving for crack never disappeared completely, no matter how many chips and uplifting affirmations he racked up in his recovery bank account.
On Thursday, April 4, of this year, Garcia left his apartment and headed for the Teamsters Hall in San Francisco to apply for a permanent trucking job. When he didn't return home that evening, or the next day, or the next, Garcia's former wife, Debbie, figured he'd taken a spur-of-the-moment trip to Reno.
Garcia came to the attention of the SFPD on Saturday morning, at about 11:30 a.m., when they responded to reports that a distressed, incoherent man was wandering in the middle of Cesar Chavez Street between Folsom and Shotwell streets wearing only a T-shirt. Witnesses reported that Garcia had stumbled out of the nearby projects, begging for assistance, at one point dropping to his knees and crying, "Help me. Help me."
Garcia ran away from police when they first approached him, and they pursued him to the Olympic gas station at the corner of Cesar Chavez and South Van Ness. There the officers repeatedly pepper sprayed Garcia after he allegedly slashed one officer's scalp with a crack pipe. He was eventually subdued by as many as four officers. His hands and feet were cuffed together. After a police dispatcher diverted an ambulance intended for Garcia to a nearby traffic accident, witnesses say he was placed on his stomach in a paddy wagon for transport to police lockdown at San Francisco General Hospital.
The 331-pound Garcia suffered a massive heart attack en route to the hospital. He was resuscitated but died after having another heart attack the next day.
"Mark wasn't a monster," says Debbie Garcia. "He was a recovering addict who slipped up and was looking for help."
Ron Garcia, Mark's younger brother, adds: "I can understand a cop being afraid of Mark; he was a big guy with 26-inch arms. But he didn't deserve to get treated like that."
Garcia's relapse isn't news, but the way in which he died has worked its way to Page 1. According to police statistics, in-custody deaths following the administration of pepper spray have become distressingly familiar in San Francisco, the state of California, and the rest of the country.
Garcia was a perfect candidate for what has come to be known as "in-custody death syndrome," a phenomenon that tends to strike individuals after a prolonged struggle with police. The deaths are blamed on a variety of factors -- most often cardiac arrest -- but no one knows for sure what brings on the fatal heart attack. The victims are usually obese, middle-aged, under the influence of cocaine or methamphetamine, and engaged in frenzied, often bizarre, behavior. A few are in the midst of a psychotic episode that has nothing to do with drug use. And in almost every case, the victims are pepper sprayed by police before being hogtied. Just when the police believe they have the situation under control, the suspect abruptly stops breathing.
Pepper spray is now in the hands of thousands of police officers across the land. And according to one estimate, 6.5 million civilians also use the weapon with little or no training and scant knowledge of its potential health effects. Nearly all of California's law enforcement agencies arm themselves with pepper spray and have used it more than 23,000 times since 1993, according to the California Department of Justice (DOJ). In that time, 32 suspects in California have died in custody after being pepper sprayed, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Nationwide, the death toll tops 60.
Like the high-profile case of Aaron Williams, who died after being pepper sprayed during a struggle with a dozen SFPD officers last June, Garcia's demise calls into question the use of pepper spray by the San Francisco Police Department on individuals who are likely candidates for in-custody death syndrome.
"Mark was sprayed four times instead of the one time stipulated by both Police Department guidelines and the specifications of the pepper spray manufacturers," Ron Garcia said during an April 26 press conference, in which he demanded that the officers who arrested Mark be put on administrative leave pending a full investigation. "We're also calling for the banning of pepper spray in San Francisco until a health and safety study is conducted, and we want to see Police Academy training scenarios implemented that deal with these kinds of situations so officers know [how] to properly handle themselves."
The ACLU has called on Mayor Willie Brown to ban the use of pepper spray until further studies are completed. This would follow the example of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, whose 132 investigators packed pepper spray until DA Terence Hallinan banned its use following Garcia's death.
"We're concerned about a number of deaths connected with its use across the country," says chief investigator Daniel J. Addario. "We wanted to curtail its use until there is some hard evidence that it's a safe product. The jury is still out on pepper spray."
The SFPD disagrees. On May 8, the department presented the findings of an in-custody death task force to the Police Commission. After almost a year of work on the issue, the task force recommended no changes in the procedure officers follow when confronting suspects like Mark Garcia and Aaron Williams, suspects who often die in police custody. Officers will continue to use pepper spray when they feel it is necessary.
"There is no way an officer can determine who is susceptible to in-custody death and who isn't," says Deputy Chief Richard Holder, who headed the task force. "Pepper spray will continue to be used."
Police argue that pepper spray offers a much safer alternative to their truncheon or service revolvers in confrontations with violent suspects who resist arrest. Obviously, the number of successful uses without injury to the police or their suspects far outnumbers fatalities.
But the fact remains that no extensive toxicology tests have ever been performed on pepper spray. Tests mandated by the California Penal Code were in the preliminary stages when legislation repealing all testing requirements for pepper spray went into effect. The legislation -- which also removed all testing and certification requirements for pepper spray use by the general public -- was introduced by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame) and sponsored by the office of Attorney General Dan Lungren, despite opposition from the California Environmental Protection Agency. Pepper spray manufacturers, who hired a lobbyist to monitor the legislation, were ecstatic.
The only "tests" conducted in the United States rely almost exclusively on police reports -- not scientific research -- to gauge the safety of pepper spray. In other words, no one really knows just how dangerous pepper spray may be.
"We know that pepper spray is being used by law enforcement agencies about once an hour somewhere in the state," San Francisco ACLU Staff Counsel John Crew says. "We also know that once every month someone dies after one of these incidents. We know that there are strikingly similar circumstances when these deaths take place. Why anyone would object to examining those cases more closely is beyond us. If it's possible to take steps to minimize the risk, then there's an obligation to do so."
The active ingredient of pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum or OC, an oily plant resin derived from the dried extracts of spices such as chili or cayenne pepper. The resin is mixed with water or oil and some form of alcohol carrier. It's injected into a canister and -- with the help of an inert gas such as nitrogen -- dispensed in short bursts in the form of a stream or a fog.
Capsaicinoids are the primary component of OC. In the body, capsaicinoids trigger the release of Substance P, an indigenous compound that governs pain recognition and sensitivity to heat, according to a report issued by Cal-EPA. High capsicum levels cause the body to release a surplus of Substance P, resulting in immediate and disabling effects in most people: Eyes involuntarily swell and close instantly; the mucous membranes become inflamed; coughing, choking, and shortness of breath accompany the excruciating pain. Those who have been tear gassed and pepper sprayed say there is no question which one is more painful -- pepper spray wins the contest hands down.
FBI Special Agent Thomas Ward was pepper spray's P.T. Barnum. As the chief chemical weapons expert at the hallowed FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., Ward touted pepper spray as the new wonder weapon that worked far better than Mace as far back as the mid-'80s. First, he authored several FBI reports vouching for pepper spray's effectiveness, and with almost evangelistic zeal he began urging federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to stock up on it. Most followed Ward's advice, and police officers, sheriffs, and even dogcatchers across the country began using pepper spray.
"When the FBI starts telling law enforcement that pepper spray is completely safe and that it works on nearly everyone, it shouldn't be any big shock that they started buying it," says the ACLU's Crew. "Its popularity grew like a tidal wave across the country."
Ward was particularly enamored of a brand of canned heat called Cap-Stun, and, in hindsight, it's easy to see why. On Feb. 12 of this year, Ward abruptly resigned from the FBI and pleaded guilty to taking nearly $60,000 in payoffs since 1989 from Lucky Police Products, the company that then made Cap-Stun. Ward received the kickbacks through a company owned by his wife.
In an official statement issued after Ward resigned, the FBI stated that while its agents will continue to use pepper spray, the agency is "reviewing its policies and procedures relating to the procurement of OC products." The FBI is also reviewing the tests Ward oversaw to determine if further testing is needed.
California was one of the last states to board the pepper spray bandwagon thanks to a provision in the state penal code. It required Cal-EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to complete a report for the state DOJ to determine if pepper spray products "are harmful, toxic, or present any health hazards to human beings."
No scientific studies had been done on pepper spray. In fact, the only studies available were the highly anecdotal reports Ward produced at the FBI's Quantico training facility, where agents and trainees were sprayed and observed. The FBI reports were, of course, mute on the toxicological effects of pepper spray. Such research would have taken years to complete.
But in the wake of the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots that followed, police departments across the state were eager to find an alternative to their truncheons, and they didn't want to wait for a passel of toxicologists to give the OK.
Attorney General Lungren found a detour around the penal code roadblock in October 1992, when he persuaded Cal-EPA to issue a special three-year "provisional certification" that would allow manufacturers to produce pepper spray and law enforcement agencies to use it.
"We kept telling the state Department of Justice that we didn't have enough data to evaluate the safety of pepper spray," says Michael DiBartolomeis, the chief of the Pesticide and Food Toxicology unit at OEHHA who worked on the assessment of pepper spray. "But DOJ was being pressured by law enforcement agencies to get approval because all the other states were already using it."
A deal was struck. Companies would be granted provisional certification provided they agree to work with OEHHA to complete the health-hazard assessment in the next three years. And law enforcement agencies would file reports with the state DOJ every time they used pepper spray. OEHHA didn't have the facilities or the personnel to actually conduct tests. Instead, the agency sat down with pepper spray manufacturers interested in selling their products in California to design studies that the manufacturers would pay to have completed at approved labs.
But most pepper spray makers weren't willing to participate in the expensive and time-consuming process. As a result, Wyoming-based Defense Technology Corp. and ZARC International, the Maryland-based company that now produces Cap-Stun, were the only companies certified to supply law enforcement agencies in California.
"Sure there was pressure to issue the provisional certifications," DiBartolomeis explains. "As a scientist, I like to have everything in place before I make a decision. But as a manager, I felt it was important to address other issues as well. Let's face it, if pepper spray wasn't made available in California and police continued to have to use a greater level of force, the public health probably wasn't going to be served either."
It soon became clear that the three-year timetable would be impossible to meet after OEHHA mapped out an ambitious testing process with manufacturers to examine a variety of toxicological issues. Making matters worse, Attorney General Lungren was already entertaining the notion of making pepper spray available to the civilian population. OEHHA officials acknowledged early on that the agency did not have the money or the resources to complete the evaluation. OEHHA Director Dr. Carol Henry admitted as much in a letter to Lungren dated Aug. 26, 1993.
"OEHHA does not have the resources to hire additional staff to work exclusively on health evaluations of tear gas," the letter states. "We recommend that your decisions about certification of tear gas weapons for civilian use (provisional or final) be based, as much as possible, on sound scientific evaluation. However, OEHHA cannot provide such an evaluation without adequate experimental data and resources to hire staff and to convene the necessary experts."
Dr. Henry also expressed concern about the role of pepper spray in a number of in-custody deaths in California and the rest of the country that had been brought to light in an ACLU report.
"We are concerned that in each incident, untoward reaction to [pepper spray] may be the contributing cause of death, or exacerbated underlying conditions such as pre-existing disease or drug use to cause cardiac or respiratory failure," Henry wrote to Lungren.
This alarming letter didn't stop Lungren from issuing a press release a few weeks later on Sept. 10, 1993, announcing his decision to certify pepper spray products for civilian use.
"After reviewing the first 2,000 incident reports from California peace officers, I have come to the conclusion that pepper spray should be available to the public for self-protection," Lungren is quoted in the press release. "And I believe that we know enough about the effects of this product -- especially when compared to other alternatives -- to make this decision now rather than two years from now.
"Prior to making them available, these products will have undergone an extensive battery of tests within my department," Lungren promised.
In March 1994, pepper spray was made available to the public despite the fact that no scientific tests had been completed on it, as Lungren had promised. A progress report issued the same month by OEHHA reveals just how little was known about the product that police and civilians alike were now free to spray virtually at will in the faces of suspects and would-be attackers.
"Following our review, we concluded that the use of OC-based tear gas products offers a reasonable alternative to a greater level of force (e.g. police baton) or to other available tear gas weapons," reads the report delivered by OEHHA officials to the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology. "However, we have several concerns. In general, the existing database is not adequate to perform an analysis of the health hazards of OC-containing tear gas weapons."
More specifically, the report points out that no research had been conducted to find out if pepper spray causes "irreversible damage to the eye or nervous system" or "adverse effects on the developing embryo" or even "genetic damage."
The OEHHA officials also complain that there is not enough data to determine just how much pepper spray is actually needed to subdue an unruly suspect. There was no information available at the time on the effect pepper spray might have on individuals under the influence of drugs -- the very people likely to be sprayed by police.
Finally, the report reveals that anyone with pre-existing pulmonary or cardiovascular disease is likely to be "more sensitive" to pepper spray, but, once again, there were no studies to confirm or deny these suspicions.
Despite these serious concerns, OEHHA never conducted any scientific study of pepper spray thanks to a 1995 bill introduced by Assemblywoman Speier and sponsored by the Attorney General's Office. AB 830 was touted as a way to make it easier for civilians to buy pepper spray by eliminating mandatory training sessions and certification requirements. But buried in the legislation was a provision that repealed the penal code statute requiring that OEHHA perform a health-hazard assessment of pepper spray. The bill easily passed the California Legislature last year and went into effect on Jan. 1. The "provisional certification" Lungren had brokered for pepper spray manufacturers selling to law enforcement agencies was suddenly permanent. And several other manufacturers eagerly entered the civilian market to take advantage of the new law. Moreover, law enforcement agencies were no longer required to send in reports on pepper spray use to the state Department of Justice.
Dan Lungren and Jackie Speier defend the legislation, arguing that the law enforcement reports filed since October 1992 offer irrefutable proof of pepper spray's safety. As of March, pepper spray had been used 23,095 times by 518 law enforcement agencies since its introduction in 1992, according to figures supplied by the Attorney General's Office. It was effective 86 percent of the time in subduing subjects. There were only five suspects and one officer injured by pepper spray. There were no reported deaths.
"There has been enough field evidence in California and other states to prove that pepper spray is safe," says Steve Telliano, Lungren's press secretary. "We have had 25,000 safe uses in California. What better study is there than that? Besides, no one is stopping Cal-EPA or any other group from doing more tests if they can find the money to do it."
Richard Steffen, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Speier, adds: "Although there are a minimum number of studies that have been done on pepper spray, there certainly aren't any studies indicating it's harmful."
Pepper spray studies based on incident reports are easy to find and are often cited by law enforcement as proof that OC sprays are safe. In 1993, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) launched a study of 22 in-custody deaths involving pepper spray from 1990-1993. The study found that pepper spray was not the cause of death in any of the cases. In 18 of the cases, death was attributed to positional asphyxia, a condition which occurs when the body's position interferes with respiration. The remaining deaths were drug-related, the study found. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) issued a similar report based on the same study.
IACP's John Granfield, who sat on a three-member panel that reviewed the deaths and contributed to the NIJ report, praised pepper spray after IACP's report was released in March 1994.
"In some cases, if you didn't have the OC, you'd have to go to a higher level of force, even to include deadly force," Granfield told Law Enforcement News. "I suspect that thanks to OC there are a number of situations in which individuals would have been shot, but instead were sprayed. Ten or 15 minutes later, they're all better."
Yet Granfield admits that the IACP and NIJ studies were not scientific research.
"Most of the information on OC has come from officers who used it during training and on subjects," Granfield wrote in the NIJ report. "This information has basically been anecdotal."
A soon-to-be-released study by IACP looks at the use of pepper spray by the Baltimore County Police Department in 1993. Although much wider in scope than the earlier studies, it still relies on anecdotal evidence provided by police reports. No one, to date, has looked at the toxicological effects of pepper spray in the manner that California law once mandated and the Cal-EPA was prepared to oversee.
"Other states and even other countries were looking to California to conduct the first serious evaluation of pepper spray," says DiBartolomeis. "We certainly would have liked to move much farther along on our project. The same concerns we had back in March of 1993 and that were expressed in numerous memorandums to the attorney general still exist today."
The law enforcement community doesn't generally share those concerns. Pepper spray is seen as a way to reduce excessive-force lawsuits and prevent the physical confrontations that lead to injuries of officers and suspects.
"I don't want to say it's the magic snake oil or the wonder elixir," says Ed Nowicki, the former director of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, "but it's close."
Lt. Ed Springer, one of three lead instructors on pepper spray at the San Francisco Police Academy, credits pepper spray with reducing injuries to SFPD officers, even though the number of assaults on officers are climbing. In 1994, approximately 450 SFPD officers were assaulted and 150 injured. Last year, when pepper spray was fully implemented in the department, 550 assaults resulted in only 41 injuries. The statistics hardly add up to irrefutable proof that pepper spray is protecting officers, but Springer's argument makes sense.
"When you eliminate a chemical agent like pepper spray, you limit your options," Springer explains. "Your other options, like your police baton, tend to cause more injuries for the cop and the suspect. Pepper spray helps you avoid wrestling with someone in the street, and that's something you really want to avoid."
Yet San Francisco cops have a surprisingly low success rate when they use the 8-ounce canister of Defense Technology pepper spray they carry on their patrol belts. From January 1995 to March 1996, the SFPD has used pepper spray 150 times. The department reports that it was effective in 101 incidents or 67 percent of the time. Most studies, including one from the state DOJ, report a success rate of around 85 percent. Lt. Springer attributes SFPD's low success rate to the poor aim of officers; they simply aren't hitting their targets. And that indicates that the training procedures for pepper spray may be inadequate.
"The success rate of the SFPD is one of the lowest I've ever seen," says Allan Parachini, public affairs director for the ACLU of Southern California and a pepper spray expert. "It's dangerous because it may lead officers to use too much pepper spray on a suspect to make sure they've hit their target. Or it could cause officers to lose confidence in pepper spray and rely on their nightsticks. Either way, a success rate that low is cause for concern."
Visalia attorney Chris Haberman represents the family of Jeffrey Scott, a truck driver who died after being pepper sprayed by Madera police during a psychotic episode in 1993. Haberman filed a product liability suit against Defense Technology on behalf of Scott's family shortly after the incident. Haberman seemed to have a pretty good case.
"Defense Technology never told law enforcement that if pepper spray doesn't work the first time you hit someone with it, then it's probably not going to work at all," Haberman says. "In this case, the police kept blasting away and blasting away with it until it had an effect; it killed Jeffrey Scott."
Defense Technology countered the wrongful-death suit with a motion for dismissal, arguing that it was certified by the state of California to distribute pepper spray and, therefore, immune from any civil liability. The court agreed; the ruling is now on appeal.
The California Legislature turned the state certification process for pepper spray into a medical and scientific sham by abolishing testing requirements. But as the Scott case illustrates, the "provisional certification" obtained by Defense Technology and ZARC has great meaning in the eyes of the court.
"The state never proved that pepper spray is safe," Haberman says. "But the court still views the meaningless provisional certification as valid. At least valid enough to use it as a basis to dismiss this lawsuit."
A similar lawsuit has been filed in the case of Aaron Williams, who died on June 4, 1995, after struggling to escape from a dozen officers near his Western Addition apartment. Williams, who was a suspect in a pet store robbery, was beaten by officers, pepper sprayed at least three times, and hogtied before being loaded into a police paddy wagon. Williams died a short time later at the Richmond Station, setting off protests against police brutality and a federal investigation. Eight officers are still facing disciplinary charges alleging violations of police regulations.
Williams' widow, Lynne, filed a $10 million suit alleging that police violated her husband's civil rights and acted "with evil, racially discriminatory intent." Aaron Williams' father and other family members had already filed a similar lawsuit, but Lynne Williams also took aim at Defense Technology, charging that the company knowingly sold a product that was potentially lethal.
"Defense Technology never told law enforcement agencies that pepper spray could be dangerous," says Oakland lawyer Clarence Livingston Jr., who, along with his partner, Robert Kroll, filed the suit on Lynne Williams' behalf. "When the police respond to a situation, they have no knowledge of a suspect's medical background. The police don't know if pepper spray could be deadly in that situation"
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.
The ACLU's John Crew says he has generally been impressed with the SFPD's guidelines, but he points out that the department declined to adopt the ACLU's recommendation to not use pepper spray on suspects who fit the criteria for in-custody death syndrome. In fact, an ACLU report issued last June urged that the state Department of Justice "develop emergency restrictions on pepper spray to minimize exposure of people who may be at increased risk -- including drug users, asthmatics, the mentally ill and people with pre-existing heart and respiratory disease."
If that policy had been adopted by the SFPD, it might have saved Mark Garcia's life.