Monday, December 12, 2011

Lawyers fear rise in use of capsicum spray

Alison Caldwell | ABC Online |  5 December 2011

Lawyers in Victoria say they fear recent changes to the Victoria Police manual could lead police to use capsicum spray or foam more often.

Capsicum spray, also known as pepper spray, is a crowd control weapon which makes the skin and eyes sting and burn.

The spray has been in the news worldwide because of the Occupy protests and two police officers in California were recently suspended after they used the spray on protesting university students.

AUDIO: Concerns police will use capsicum spray more often (PM)

Police in Victoria have been using the spray on offenders since 1998.

Until recently the police manual provided guidelines for the use of capsicum spray, including when it should and should not be used on a person.

The manual used to state the spray or foam should not be used "when a person is passively resisting arrest such as hanging limp or refusing to comply with instructions."

But that guideline was removed from the police manual last year.

Melbourne lawyer Anthony Kelly, from the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, says he is concerned police will start to use capsicum spray more liberally.

"Our major concerns are that when capsicum spray was first introduced it was very clearly specified that it should only be used in really violent or confrontational situations of serious physical confrontation," he said.

"But more and more we're seeing the use of capsicum spray against people who are simply non-compliant with police orders - so against prisoners, against people in custody, but also against protesters who are peaceful and are engaged in what's sometimes called passive resistance or non-violent civil disobedience.

"Prior to February last year there were very clear guidelines that it should only be used in situations of violence and serious physical confrontation ... and those guidelines have now been removed from the recent edition.

"We're concerned that police are more likely to use capsicum spray against people who are engaged in non-violent protest, peaceful protest."

'Bizarre' change

Capsicum spray was used on Occupy Melbourne protestors when police were called to break up a demonstration in the City Square on October 21.

Occupy Melbourne group solicitor Matt Wilson says the change to the police manual are concerning.

"It seems bizarre that it's impossible for the police to describe certain circumstances, particularly circumstances where people are acting in a completely non-violent manner, that is no longer described as a situation where capsicum spray cannot be used, should not be used," he said.

Victoria Police Senior Sergeant Andrew Miles, who is in charge of the operational safety tactics and training unit, says the policy was there to give more guidance but has now been removed.

He says police receive extensive training when it comes to using capsicum spray.

"The training that we provide in relation to the use of OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) still talks about proportionality, still talks about the fact that OC aerosols ... shouldn't be used where people are passively resisting," he said.

Senior Sergeant Miles says training dictates that capsicum spray is "only used to achieve the purpose that you're trying to set out for", such as arresting someone.

"But not more than that. That would be unlawful in its own self," he said.

He says he does not believe police will use capsicum spray more often because of the change to the police manual.

A report by Victoria's Office of Police Integrity in 2009 examined the use of force by Victoria Police and found police were using capsicum spray more often.

According to the report between 2004 and 2008 police in Melbourne's west went from using capsicum spray 28 times a month to 134 times a month.

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