FORT MYERS, Fla. - It's a tool for law enforcement officers to gain compliance in a less-lethal way but how many times is too many times to spray someone with pepper spray? Chief investigator Melissa Yeager uncovers it's not unusual for people to get sprayed two, three, even as many as five times.
We went through hundreds of reports and saw Lee Sheriff's Office deputies facing some very challenging situations: suspects trying to kill themselves, trying to kick out the windows of cruisers, and even trying to attack the deputies. There is no doubt this is an important less-lethal tool for law enforcement, but we wanted to know why it takes law enforcement officers sometimes multiple uses to get a suspect or inmate under control.
The use of pepper spray, also known as OC, gained national scrutiny after officers used it to spray a line of protestors at UC Davis during an occupy rally. It made headlines at another occupy rally in New York where an officer reached over the fence and sprayed two women. It also gained attention here in Lee County.
Nicholas Christie was an inmate in the Lee County jail in 2009 and over his two day stay was pepper sprayed ten times. He died at an area hospital two days later. His death certificate says it was due to noxious effects of OC spray.
The State Attorney's Office declined to file criminal charges, but Christie's family is suing Lee County in federal court over his death.
"I don't think the use of force on Nick Christie fits within any acceptable continuum," the Christie family attorney, Nick DiCello said.
The Department of Justice studied the use of pepper spray and found no adverse reactions when sprayed once. They never conducted any tests about multiple sprays. Our investigation found multiple sprays happen quite frequently.
We went through dozens of records from the Lee County Sheriff's Office documenting every time deputies sprayed someone both on the street and in the jail over the last three years. We found dozens of cases where people were sprayed as many as three times in less than an hour. We also found it wasn't unusual for deputies to need to use pepper spray and a stun gun to subdue someone especially if they were under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
We posed this question to Southwest Florida Public Service Academy Correction Coordinator Robert Martin: is this appropriate?
"I can't tell you. That it depends on the resistance," said Martin. "The goal is to stop the resistance. There's a reason you're spraying them and the goal is to stop the resistance and once we have compliance and the subject is no longer resisting then we stop the use of force."
Martin says one of the reasons why officers have to issue multiple sprays is because it only works if you make a direct hit to the mucus membranes of the nose, mouth or eyes.
"If you're hitting in the wrong place, you would have to spray multiple times until you get it into the correct area," he explained.
And for some people it may not work at all.
"People on drugs act differently and some people this will not affect at all. So you have to have a plan 'B.' You always have a plan 'B,' " said Martin.
At least one expert thinks the problem isn't with the officers but with the product. Dr. Charles Mesloh says the product has to go through more than just mucus membranes. It also has to absorb into your skin.
"Part of the process of the pepper spray absorbed into your skin has to do with getting through the pores of your skin," explained Dr. Mesloh. "That's why there is a delay."
As director of the Weapons and Equipment Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University, Dr. Mesloh has tested dozens of pepper spray products and says many of them have a delay.
"It doesn't knock you to the floor instantly, there's a delay," he explained. "We've seen as much as a 45 minute delay with some sprays. Most are 2-3 minutes which is still a long time."
Mesloh blames that inconsistency on the lack of regulation of pepper spray products.
"Unfortunately we don't get that consistently across the brands and that's because we don't have a consistent formula across the brands," he explained.
Even though the Christie family believes the county is at fault in Christie's death, they have concerns about the product too.
"I think even if you ask someone who is certified to use OC, ask them what's in it, I don't know that they'll be able to tell you. They'll be able to tell you-- what they'll say is they'll say it's peppers. And they're right, but what else is in it," Nick DiCello asked.
And we asked that same question: What is in pepper spray and why are the ingredients such a highly protected secret? Click here to see our second story exploring the contents of pepper spray products.