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Hot Shots: Tactics and Training with More Powerful OC Sprays

Manufacturers are making OC sprays more powerful, and this may require you to adjust your tactics and training.

by Gary T. Klugiewicz and Dave Young

Pain, suffering, blindness, choking, and panic are probably your memories of the first time you were exposed to or contaminated by OC spray. Most of us can remember vividly our initiation into the wonderful world of oleoresin capsicum. And if you're like most new officers, you probably imagined that there was no way that anybody could fight through the effects of this stuff.

You weren't alone. When the aerosol weapon commonly referred to as "pepper spray" first arrived in the police arsenal, it was believed by many experts that this control tool would be a "magic bullet" that would revolutionize police tactics and negate the need for other, more intrusive, intermediate weapons such as the baton or specialty impact munitions.

Unfortunately, as with most such breakthroughs, the results were not quite so dramatic as we thought they would be. OC spray has proven to be a useful, often effective control tool in the law enforcement arsenal but, as with all control tools, its effectiveness is based on a number of variables, including method of deployment, strength of the formulation (some people can withstand an awful lot of pain), and the manner in which the OC sprays from the canister (stream, fog, foam, etc.) In addition, there are tactical considerations such as how to take the subject into custody and how to avoid spraying fellow officers.

New Formulas

OC has come a long way since it first arrived on the law enforcement market about a decade ago. Back then the chemistry was basically the same from brand to brand and your only options were fog or stream patterns. In other words, pepper spray was just pepper spray.

Not anymore. Today, there are a wide variety of formulas, sizes, and systems that are common to the law enforcement market.

And manufacturers keep working to develop improved deployment methods, more effective formulas, and more accurate spray patterns. Let's take a look at some of the more interesting OC products that are now available or in development.

Punch III from Aerko is now available in a "Micro Bubble" spray pattern that combines the range that you get with a streamer with the protection from cross-contamination afforded by a fogger. The "Micro Bubble" starts out as a stream, hits the target, and is transformed into a shaving cream-like foam.

Combined Tactical Systems has just come out with an OC spray line to complete its less-lethal munitions product line. The CTS sprays are available in both OC and OC/CS blends.

Enforcement Technology Group's V-4 Control combines the range of a streamer and the coverage of a cone spray. V-4 starts out as a stream but hits the target with an expanding splatter that Enforcement Technology calls a "Shotgun Stream."

Security Equipment Corp. produces a line of OC aerosols that also includes an ultraviolet dye so that suspects can later be identified. The company's Sabre line features sprays that range in potency from 500,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) to 2 million SHU. Sabre Red is quality controlled with high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) testing so that it contains precisely 10 percent OC, yielding 2 million SHU.

Zarc, the maker of Cap-Stun, has announced the development of Vexor, an extremely powerful formula that will be available soon. The company promises that this product will revolutionize the market with "Micro Spin" technology that almost eliminates "blowback" from the spray and a formulation that hits with the power of 15 million SHU. According to Zarc, Vexor produces more "consistent results far beyond the performance of current pepper sprays." The authors look forward to an opportunity to evaluate this product.

How "Hot" is Too Hot?

One of the major, ongoing controversies regarding the deployment of OC spray is how much heat does it take to control a suspect. Let's look at the pros and cons of having a very effective OC spray that is able to knock down most resisting subjects immediately.

Paul Ford, the product-line specialist for Defense Technology/Federal Laboratories and Guardian Aerosols explains that although it is the job of the manufacturers to provide the best products to suit the needs of their customers, they also have a duty to inform the customers of the benefits and risks of super- hot sprays.

Ford says that officers are asking the manufacturers for hotter, more potent aerosols, and the manufacturers have the technology to meet that demand. But the question is, just where do you want OC spray to fit in your escalation-of-force policy?

Traditionally, OC has been placed in the low end of any use-of-force model-usually somewhere in between verbal commands and hard empty hand control. As OC spray is made hotter and therefore more effective, there is an argument that this may move aerosol weapons up to the level of an intermediate weapon or beyond.

Ford says manufacturers can satisfy the need of their customers for different strength OC Products, but that customers need to be aware of the effects of the different types of OC Spray available for their use.

Another issue with newer, hotter sprays is cross-contamination. Any cop who's ever used OC without a gas mask knows that there's a good chance that he or other cops will feel the burn as well as the subject. So the question becomes, how hot of an aerosol spray do you want to be contaminated with in cross-contamination and crossfire situations.

Today, most officers can be conditioned to take secondary and even direct exposure to traditional OC sprays. But as hotter sprays hit the market, will we reach a point where deployment of OC spray will require additional medical response for incapacitated officers?

Think about this for a moment. Your agency probably matches the protection of its issue body armor to the caliber and ammo type of its duty pistols. This is to protect you from accidental fire from other officers and from crossfire situations. But if your agency fields a superhot spray, what will protect you from it? Do you want to be exposed to or contaminated with an OC spray that will incapacitate you?

Extremely hot OC spray may be appropriate for specialized situations where the officers responding have donned protective (gas) masks, i.e. barricaded subjects or prison riots. In other cases, other less effective forms of OC spray may be the way to go.

Finally, decontamination time is a consideration for both the subject and the officers involved in an application of aerosol sprays. About 20 to 30 minutes is considered a good recovery time from OC spray. Stronger aerosol sprays take more time to recover from and can take up to an hour to an hour-and-a-half or longer for full recovery.

This could be a problem on several levels. A prisoner in custody who has been contaminated with OC spray usually ties up at least one officer to monitor him or her for reactions that may require medical attention. If you add to this an officer that has been incapacitated by being exposed to or contaminated by OC, even more officers are tied up for longer periods of time.

Hotter, more effective OC spray may end the initial confrontation quickly but require more time for decontamination of both officers and subjects. And that's a potentially serious problem. Proper police action is a balance of safety and efficiency. Although safety is always our number one concern, this must be balanced against how efficiently we clear the call while utilizing "reasonable" force based on the level of threat presented by the subject.

Tactical Considerations

As with any weapon system, the use of good tactics with OC spray is the key to success.

No aerosol weapon, especially OC spray, stops a subject right in his or her tracks. It may take several seconds for the OC to take effect. This is especially the case with formulations designed to be used lower on your escalation-of-force scale that offer rapid decontamination. But even hotter formulations of OC won't work immediately on all subjects. Keep your distance, evaluate the spray's effects, and respond accordingly.

Always retain your ability to disengage and/or escalate. Knowing that nothing works all the time helps you plan for both success and failure. If the OC doesn't work, you must be ready to immediately respond with empty hand control tactics, disengage and get more distance, or draw either a baton or firearm in order to control the situation.

The best way to disengage is the tactical "L" concept. This maneuver allows an officer to disengage from a subject safely using his or her natural instinct. The natural response of anyone who is being attacked from the front is to unconsciously take a couple of steps backwards. This natural response is enhanced by then moving laterally four or five steps to change direction and confuse the assailant. The shape of the maneuver, an "L," gives this tactic its name.

Another key tactical concern is to avoid being sprayed by either blowback from your own OC, shots from another officer or even an OC assault from a subject. The best way to avoid being sprayed is to have a preplanned, practiced response developed prior to the assault. Some of the things you can do include holding your breath, covering your eyes with at least one arm, looking away momentarily to avoid the direct effects of the spray, having an empty hand strike ready for a counter strike, and being prepared to move and draw your firearm if it is not already out.

Your tactics should also include ways for multiple officers to take a suspect into custody. One very good way to do this is the "Circle of Defense" concept that was developed by Enforcement Technology Group as a part of its V-4 Control OC Spray Training Program.

This tactic requires officers to encircle a subject about to be sprayed. Rather than having all the officers rush the subject and placing them all in danger of cross-contamination, the spraying officer draws the subject in. Once the subject makes a move, the other officers ready themselves for subject control tactics. Then, after the spray is dispensed and the subject is displaying a "pause in combat," the officers take him or her into custody. This tactic also takes into consideration where "innocent" bystanders are positioned, so that you can avoid creating a panic by spraying persons who are not directly involved in the situation.

Direct Exposure

Of course, regardless of tactics, you're still likely to suffer some effects from OC when spraying or controlling a subject who has been sprayed. Consequently, you need to train to function when hit with OC.

The best way to be able to function if exposed to or contaminated with OC is to prepare yourself mentally for the event. And the best way to prepare is through an active direct exposure. An active direct exposure is a training exercise that requires an officer to keep functioning after being exposed to or contaminated with live agent.

Another important training concern is accuracy. First and foremost, you have to hit what you shoot at. Any OC training program needs to include a section on developing marksmanship with the OC spray unit being deployed. This usually consists of inert units being sprayed at targets.

But a better way of teaching OC accuracy is to have the students become the targets. Be sure that they wear eye protection even when being sprayed with inert units to protect them from eye damage. These targets should perform like subjects on the street. That means they shouldn't stand there like statues and wait to be hit. They should lunge at the officers, moving laterally to avoid being hit with the spray, covering up to avoid the spray, acting in a group with other students to provide multiple targets, and kneeling and being proned out to simulate resisting subjects in multiple positions.

Being able to retain control of your OC spray unit if it is grabbed while being deployed or being able to disarm someone trying to use an OC spray unit on you in close quarters is another important part of an OC spray training program.

The effectiveness of OC in a police operation is directly proportional to the competency of the officer using it. There are different formulations and deployment methods, but the bottom line remains the same: The officer using the weapon and reacting to its effect on the subject ultimately determines the success or failure of the tactics and the ultimate victory or defeat in the streets.

Gary T. Klugiewicz is an instructor in the Fox Valley Technical College's Tactical Training Division and a retired Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department captain. He has been instrumental in the development of both police and corrections training programs that utilize OC spray.

Dave Young is a recognized expert in the fields of chemical and specialty impact munitions. His Chemical Aerosol Program for OC has been used as a model for the U. S. Marine Corps and for law enforcement agencies.

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