Washington, D.C.-area police departments deployed pepper spray nearly 300 times last year, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
The use of the spray varies widely community-by-community and is frequently the source of complaints from citizens against law enforcement, the I-Team found.
Nearly two-thirds of last year’s recorded pepper spray deployments in the region were made by two police departments, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department and the Prince William County Police Department, the I-Team found. D.C. police reported 117 usages of pepper spray, while Prince William County Police recorded 88.
Those totals indicate a wide disparity in usage of the spray. The I-Team found less than 35 deployments by all other local police departments, including Fairfax County police, Virginia State Police, Maryland State Police, Montgomery County police and Prince George’s County police.
The use of pepper spray is believed to cause fewer injuries than other police uses of force, including batons and taser electronic control devices.
“In my eyes it means we’re using the least amount of force possible to gain compliance,” said Prince William County police acting Chief Jarad Phelps.
Phelps said his agency use-of-force reports show batons and taser devices are less frequently used by his officers.
The I-Team’s review of public use-of-force reports finds neighboring Fairfax County police and Montgomery County police reported their officers used taser devices more often than pepper spray last year.
Phelps said each pepper spray usage is formally reviewed by several administrators inside the department. He said 88 usages of spray in more than 12,000 arrests is a small percentage.
The D.C. Office of Police Complaints (OPC) commissioned a review of the D.C. police use of pepper spray during the 2017 Inauguration Day riots. The review found multiple incidents of potential misuse by officers, including the deployment of spray without audible verbal warnings by officers.
An OPC spokesman said his agency has received approximately 20 complaints from citizens about the D.C. police usage of pepper spray since January 2019, including 12 from people involved in recent protests.
“Any time a member of MPD engages in use of force, including OC spray, there is an internal investigation,” a D.C. police spokeswoman said.
Virginia State Police said the state does not require local police to file reports to state officials about incidents of improper force by officers.
Maryland’s state public safety agency does require the nearly 150 local police departments in the state to report incidents of officer misconduct. The I-Team has learned approximately 25 local police departments were late or incomplete in filing those reports in 2019. A state spokesman declined to name the agencies, but in a Freedom of Information Act request, the I-Team found most of those agencies are smaller police departments, including three municipal or school-based police units in Prince George’s County.
In several communities, including the District of Columbia, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, legislatures are considering or implementing police policy reforms, including changes to use-of-force rules.
“Our policy should always be to use the least amount of force possible,” Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando said. “Sometimes that should mean de-escalating. The best use of force is no use of force.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.