Feature

Why cops overuse pepper spray

Police officers value their authority, and get incensed when people defy their orders, said Brandon Keim at Wired.com.

Brandon KeimWired.com

If you put a can of pepper spray on a cop’s belt, said Brandon Keim, chances are that he’ll use it. When police started using the powerful skin and eye irritant in the 1990s, it was supposed to serve as a last-resort alternative to subduing resisting suspects with violence. But that wasn’t the case when a cop recently sprayed the faces of seated, peaceful Occupy Wall Street protesters at the University of California, Davis. Studies have shown that when cops have pepper spray or Tasers on their belts, they’re more likely to use them in nonviolent situations—simply to prove who’s boss.

Police officers value their authority, and get incensed when people defy their orders. So even when people passively resist—as was the case at UC Davis—cops instinctively reach for the spray can. But officers would get better results, and generate fewer embarrassing videos, if they saved the pepper spray for violent offenders. At the police academy, they’re taught to use reason with nonviolent arrestees, or, should that fail, to use noninjurious force to carry them off to jail. Smart policing relies on “brains, not brawn”—or pepper.

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