Death by pepper spray?

Seattle police are ignoring FBI safety warnings. Now Michael Ealy is dead. Will new science change local policy?

It happened again. Another African-American man died mysteriously in police custody. This time it was Michael Ealy, 35, picked up December 28 while running wildly through traffic on Dexter Avenue. Ealy was apparently delirious on drugs—cocaine was later detected in his blood—and was restrained with pepper spray and handcuffs after he attacked paramedics and police officers on the scene. He died at Harborview Medical Center seven hours later.

While Ealy's family is charging police brutality, and the cops claim they did nothing wrong, perhaps the strongest suspect in the death, pepper spray, is escaping scrutiny altogether. Meanwhile, in California, a new scientific study conducted on lab animals shows that combining cocaine and pepper spray dramatically increases the likelihood of death.

Just before 10pm on December 28, police responded to several neighborhood complaints about a man darting through traffic on the 1700 block of Dexter. According to police reports, officers observed Ealy "behaving in a bizarre fashion, signifying that he may be under the influence of narcotic(s) or otherwise disturbed." They requested transport to Harborview, and when medics arrived, Ealy calmly climbed into the ambulance. Less than 10 blocks from where he was originally picked up, however, Ealy "became violent and aggressive attacking [ambulance] staff," according to the report. The ambulance stopped, and police in the escorting patrol car tried to subdue him. In the ensuing struggle, police say Ealy bit officers who retaliated with pepper spray. Ealy suddenly became "unresponsive," according to the police, and was rushed to Harborview. He died at 3am the following morning. "Certainly, it was a sudden death," says King County medical examiner Dr. Donald Reay. "Cardiac arrest, precipitated by the restraint procedures that were employed."

It was a remarkably similar story to the death of Robert Wayne Guy Jr. Almost exactly one year earlier, on December 27, 1997, while in King County Jail for a misdemeanor arrest, Guy, 20, flew into an uncontrollable rage. It took a dozen officers to restrain him—importantly, reports show the jailers used pepper spay in their struggle—before Guy fell into a coma. He died three days later from "acute cocaine intoxication with psychotic behavior and physical restraint," according to Dr. Reay's report at the time. A subsequent inquest conducted by the King County prosecutor's office found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of correction officers involved.

Police maintain that officers also acted appropriately and followed official restraint procedures in Ealy's death six weeks ago. To make sure, King County Executive Ron Sims ordered another public inquest—which is almost automatic for all in-custody deaths. Lab reports from the medical examiner's office that may help pinpoint cause of death are pending. Still, Lembhard Howell, a prominent attorney hired by the Ealy family, isn't satisfied. He claims the investigation is moving too slowly, which will distort testimony by the police who were at the scene. More importantly, he contends Ealy's body showed "evidence of beating."

However, a new scientific study regarding the use of pepper spray on cocaine users suggests that it's local law enforcement policy that could be flawed and indirectly responsible for the deaths of both Ealy and Guy. It also appears that the Seattle Police Department is ignoring pepper spray safety recommendations issued jointly by the FBI and International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

Since its official sanction by the FBI 10 years ago, pepper spray has become a popular and effective police tool for minimizing physical contact with dangerous and uncooperative suspects. According to the SPD's official directive, "approved chemical restraints [i.e., pepper spray] may be applied in situations which require subduing or taking a person into custody." However, after a series of in-custody deaths across the country involving narcotics and pepper spray, civil liberties activists warned that spraying cocaine users, in particular, may induce unintended pharmacological reactions, and even death. In 1997, both the IACP and FBI commissioned new pepper spray studies and concluded, in part: "if a subject displays drug- or alcohol-induced behavior, officers should be cautious in using [pepper spray] and should consider other tactics."

Despite the new studies and FBI recommendations, the SPD has not changed its pepper spray training or engagement policy since they were first implemented in 1992. In fact, Lt. Joe Kessler, who wrote the SPD training manual for pepper spray field use, dismisses these concerns outright, saying he taught all active officers "the myth of pepper-spray-related death."

Lt. Kessler explains that despite the FBI and IACP warnings about cocaine, both agencies wholeheartedly endorse its general use—which is true—and adds that the studies are based on circumstantial and anecdotal evidence—which is also true. Lt. Kessler notes that pepper spray is a highly effective tool and minimizes injury to both police and suspects, who might otherwise be incapacitated by batons or nightsticks. "I talked to a number of defensive tactics experts," says Lt. Kessler, "and I have not found any evidence that anybody can substantively say [pepper spray] was a contributing factor in in-custody deaths." Dr. Reay, a nationally recognized expert on excessive force by police, concurs: "A cause-and-effect relationship has not been clearly established." He recommends further study.

Now he has it. Researchers from the University of California at San Francisco recently completed the first-ever study of pepper spray on lab animals, which goes some way to corroborate earlier concerns about in-custody deaths with clinical data. The yet-to-be-published report, a draft of which was obtained by Seattle Weekly, is the first academic study to test the lethality of pepper spray, according to its principal author, Dr. John E. Mendelson. The UCSF study shows that in lab mice, at least, combining ordinarily nonlethal doses of cocaine and capsicum (the active ingredient in pepper spray) dramatically increases the likelihood of death. In one scenario, mice exposed to capsicum were more than five times more likely to die than mice in the control group, which were given the same dose of cocaine but no capsicum. "We conclude that exposure to pepper spray in cocaine-intoxicated individuals may potentiate cocaine lethality," the UCSF paper reads.

"This is the smoking gun," says John Crew of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, who first identified the correlation between a series of in-custody deaths and pepper spray in an ACLU report published in 1995. "It's this simple," says Crew, "cocaine plus pepper spray equals death."

Dr. Mendelson is more cautious. "It's not the most elegant way to address this problem," he says. "It does not prove causality"—no specific cause of death was investigated—"but it's a good way to start." Dr. Mendelson is awaiting final approval of his draft report from the three other UCSF doctors who assisted in the experiment before submitting the paper to medical journals for publication.

Amazingly little research has been conducted on the general health consequences of pepper spray exposure. Three years ago, the FBI announced that its original research, which found pepper spray "100 percent safe and effective," was tainted. According to an FBI statement, Special Agent Thomas Ward, who was in charge of the FBI tests a decade ago, pleaded guilty to felony charges in 1996 for accepting more than $50,000 from a pepper spray manufacturer in Florida. Upon Ward's dismissal, the FBI conducted new tests and found "no lasting adverse effects" associated with pepper spray. However, the FBI's follow-up report was quick to note that test subjects "included only persons who were in generally good physical condition. . . . Neither the results of the FBI's study, nor the pepper spray research conducted by others since then, address the effect of pepper spray on individuals with pre-existing health problems or those under the influence of alcohol and drugs."

In November 1997, a month before Guy's death in King County Jail, the FBI and IACP updated their research once again—this time recommending alternative force in apprehending drug users. A spokesperson for Defense Technology Corp., manufacturers of the pepper spray brand carried by SPD officers, could not be reached for comment.

An investigation into Ealy's death is currently being conducted by the King County prosecutor's office, which will eventually present evidence to a special inquest jury, probably later this month. The inquest jury's findings are politically significant but technically nonbinding. Prosecutors decide on their own whether or not to charge the officers involved.

"There's a built-in conflict of interest by the prosecutor's office," protests Ealy family attorney Howell. He says that the arcane inquest procedures combined with prosecutors' close relationship with law enforcement will obscure police brutality. The Ealy family is not very much concerned with the pepper spray issue, according to Howell, despite the unheeded FBI warnings and UCSF study. For one thing, Howell only reluctantly admits Ealy used cocaine. Instead, the Ealys maintain that Michael was beaten. Howell says Ealy's body showed evidence of "compressions" to the neck and chest, which he links to police brutality. He will be in court, before Judge Darcy Goodman, to begin unraveling these issues in the first preliminary inquest hearing death this week.

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