Lessons Learned: Pepper-sprayed California protesters awarded $1 each by jury
Law enforcement officers from two northern California counties were found liable Thursday for using excessive force by swabbing pepper spray in the eyes of logging protesters in 1997. A jury awarded eight plaintiffs $1 each. The protesters claim their civil rights were violated when Humboldt County sheriff's deputies and Eureka police officers swabbed pepper spray directly in their eyes during the 1997 protest. The protesters argued the pepper spray was used to illegally punish and intimidate them for chaining themselves together and making it difficult for authorities to arrest them. (Full Story from The Associated Press - See below)
Four Lessons from this Incident:
1. When responding to a demonstration or protest, departments must have a pre-planned response and rehearse for future situations, regardless of whether the crowd is passive or combative.
2. Extra precautions need to be taken when subjects are chained or tied together. At times, protestors have employed chains, pvc tubing, ropes and other devices, which can be either used or booby trapped to injure the officer, subject(s) and/or others in the area.
3. Avoid making any contact directly or indirectly to the eyeball itself.
4. To help combat possible charges of excessive force and inhumane treatment, it's advisable to have plenty of clean water readily available for use after the application of a chemical deterrent. In one case involving protestors who claimed that officers' use of OC spray to get them to release a human chain they had constructed was excessive [Headwaters Forest Defense, et al. v. County of Humboldt, et al. United States District Court, Northern District of California; Case No. 97-C-398], the judge noted that "deputies applied water from a spray bottle, in some cases before the [demonstrators] were released, in order to limit the discomfort caused by the pepper spray."
5. The safety of the officer, subjects and bystanders must be taken into account before, after and during the application of chemicals. When handling or using any type of chemicals, keep in mind the three levels of contamination:
- Level 1: Direct physical contact with the chemical, such as spraying a subject directly in the face.
Level 2: Indirect or secondary contact with the chemical used. This is physically touching the subject.
Level 3: An open area contamination with the chemical used such as OC in aerosol form.
Level 2 Options that Could Have Been Used Duing this Incident:
Option 1: Use a damp sponge saturated with the chemical. Place the sponge above the eye and use a blotting motion, which will release the chemical causing it to drip into the eyes of the subject. Avoid coming into direct contact with the subject's eyeball.
Option 2: Using a foam delivery system, the officers could have sprayed the chemical directly to the face of the subject(s), limiting the area contamination and avoiding direct contact with the subject's eyes. Foam can also be deployed using a more direct method. This would include applying it to a sponge, blotting the target area, and then spraying the subject(s) facial area with clean drinkable water, using the mist nozzle selection. The water will carry the chemical to the target area.
Option 3: Spray the chemical being used into a small clean spray bottle and dilute the chemical with clean drinkable water. Place the spray container 3-4 ft. from the subject. For example, if using a MK4 chemical aerosol unit, spay it into a clean bottle, add 1-2 cups of water and then shake vigorously. When spraying the subject, use the mist selection for the nozzle, shaking the bottle at various times during deployment to ensure the solution stays together. This causes the formulation to be slower acting and controll the delivery and area being contaminated. This option limits cross contamination and the required decontamination.
Option 4: MACE introduced a new pepper gel formulation several months ago. Gel works exactly like foam, limiting cross contamination and covering the target area, but gives the officer a safer distance from the threat then the foam.
Pepper-sprayed California Logging Protesters Awarded $1 Each by Jury
By JUSTIN M. NORTON
Associated Press Writer
SAN FRANCISCO- Law enforcement officers from two northern California counties were found liable Thursday for using excessive force by swabbing pepper spray in the eyes of logging protesters in 1997. A jury awarded eight plaintiffs $1 each.
It was the third trial in the case; the first two ended in deadlocked juries in 1998 and 2004.
The plaintiffs laughed and hugged outside the courtroom - and applauded when jurors left their chambers.
"They did the right thing," said Terri Slanetz, a 42-year-old naturalist from Oakland. "We've been trying all along to get a statement that this was illegal. It's a positive step toward people treating each other decently."
The protesters claim their civil rights were violated when Humboldt County sheriff's deputies and Eureka police officers swabbed pepper spray directly in their eyes during the 1997 protest.
The protesters argued the pepper spray was used to illegally punish and intimidate them for chaining themselves together and making it difficult for authorities to arrest them.
"The plaintiffs were never in it for the money. They were in it for the principle," attorney Tony Serra said.
The defendants in the case were Humboldt County, the city of Eureka, retired county Sheriff Dennis Lewis and current Sheriff Gary Philp, who was chief deputy sheriff at the time of the protest.
"It's nice to have someone come in with some kind of resolution of the case," Philp said. "The nominal damages show that the jury thought no one got hurt."
The protests took place at the Eureka office of then-Rep. Frank Riggs, and at the Scotia headquarters of the Pacific Lumber Co.
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- Less Lethal