Should Cops Routinely Pepper-Spray Kids?
Oct. 6, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — According to a federal district judge, school resource officers should not routinely respond to misbehaving children by spraying them in the face with Freeze + P, “the most intense incapacitating agent available today,” which works by inflicting “severe pain.”
Let me repeat that: There was a lawsuit about whether it was appropriate to routinely spray children in the eyes with “Orthochlorobenzalmalonitrile and Oleoresin Capsicum.” A group of lawyers put on some nice suits, had their coffee, and shined their shoes. They showed up to court with files in their hands and their faces clearly exposed and argued that police officers should be able to spray children whenever convenient, and did not have a duty to assist the children afterward by washing their eyes or offering uncontaminated clothing.
Sometimes, the officers would use the spray to break up a fight. Sometimes, for cursing loudly. And sometimes, just for “backtalking and challenging authority.” This wasn’t done as a last resort. In many cases, it was simply the officers’ preferred option. Of 199 students who were sprayed, only one had a weapon. Eleven others were sprayed solely for verbal non-compliance.
According to the officers, this was easier and safer than other methods.
The court also heard testimony that indicated several of the officers spray students with Freeze +P because it is easier than more hands-on approaches, even though those approaches cause students less pain than Freeze +P.
In one case, a pregnant, 130-pound teenaged girl was walking away from a boy that her family had kicked out of the house that day for stealing. As she fled, he screamed at her. She started crying hysterically, and walked into the school gymnasium.
Fortunately, a friendly school resource officer was there. The officer handcuffed her and told her to “calm down,” a phrase that always works immediately.
Still crying, she tried to explain why she was upset, and he told her, twice more, to calm down. When she stubbornly refused, he decided that pepper spray would be the best way to prevent her from crying. The girl testified that the spray had a powerful effect, like “someone had cut [her face] and put hot sauce on it.” She started vomiting, and an ambulance was called.
When the paramedics arrived, they told her not to wash her eyes out with water, saying it would only make the burning worse. This was demonstrably wrong; the manufacturer said that washing your eyes out with cold water should be the first step. But paramedics apparently said this to every student who came to them.
The girl was taken to a hospital, where the officer persuaded her not to seek medical care because it would just waste the day, since nothing would help the burning. Then he arrested her, and she was strip searched at a local Family Court.
Of course, the officer gave a different account. He said that the pregnant teenager was trying to pick a fight with the boy who was taunting her, and that a crowd had gathered and was shouting menacingly. The judge chose not to believe him in light of the fact that it did not match his earlier sworn testimony that the crowd had mostly vanished by the time he decided pepper spray would be his best option.
While the judge in some instances found the officers unbelievable, and found himself baffled by the school district’s continuing use of pepper spray in everyday situations, the student plaintiffs did not get much of a windfall.
Only two of the students were allowed to sue for being improperly sprayed, giving them a judgment of $5,000.00. These two students, and a few others, were also allowed to recover $5,000.00 each for not being helped by officers after they had been sprayed. But the judge was skeptical of the students’ claims of physical and psychological damage.
Because there was not much evidence on the record that being pepper sprayed causes long-term damage, the judge was reluctant to grant money on that basis. The students also raised psychological claims, but the court ruled that many of them were already so traumatized by the events of their lives (including sexual assault, mental illness, early pregnancy, and in one case, having a boyfriend tazed to death by police) that it would be impossible to figure out just how much additional trauma the pepper spraying caused.
This “victory” for the students means that the Birmingham school district will have to distribute “flyers” notifying students how to decontaminate themselves if they’re sprayed in the eyes. The officers will get “better training.”
And that’s it. Nobody is getting fired. The remedy these kids get is that someone is going to tell school resource officers to be more reasonable about how they use pepper spray against children. But nobody is going to examine whether having a cop in every hallway actually improves things.
At some point, putting police officers into every school made a lot of sense. People hoped that a school resource officer on campus could stop school shootings, break up fights, and keep children safer. And maybe it’s worked. Children in school have never been safer.
But just like the pepper spray, police officers provide an easy option for school administrators unsure how to provide discipline in their districts. A police officer’s ability to use force is intimidating, and schools hope that that deterrent effect will make their jobs easier.
And as a result children, small children, are being placed in handcuffs. Poor and minority students are being placed into a juvenile justice system whose introduction into their lives is the single best predictor of future criminality—where some facilities have sexual assault rates by staff of “30% or greater.”
For those who scoff that the kids just need discipline, take note: the paddlings of yesteryear never carried the long-term consequences of a criminal record or the loss of months of schooling. The power to detain, to arrest, to hurt, and to kill is the power to ruin the forward progress of a child’s life. And that should never be a first resort.