Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Wandsworth Land Occupation, 1996
Photo: Paul Mattsson

Substance Abuse

Dr Corson’s and Dr Stoughton’s hand-held hazard

CS spray could soon become standard police issue in the UK, despite one suspected death and mounting complaints of serious injury. Shaun Trevisick investigates the dubious history of this supposedly safe chemical.

Squall 13, Summer 1996, pp. 26-27.

On March 1st trials of handheld CS gas sprays, involving 16 police forces, were finally given the go-ahead by Michael Howard. On the same day the National Black Caucus announced that the first man to die of the spray would be a black man.

Scarcely over two weeks later, Ibrahima Sey, a 29-year old Gambian-born asylum seeker, died whilst handcuffed in police custody. Although he had been sprayed by CS gas the authorities continue to deny any connection between the chemical and his death.

The chemical agent orthochloro-benzylidene malononitrile, is commonly called CS after Drs Corson and Stoughton refined it at the Government’s secretive Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down in the early 1960s. It has a long history of use and abuse.

In its latest incarnation, it has become a hand-held spray, designed to incapacitate violent or armed assailants by acting on the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat and inducing streaming eyes, coughing, sneezing, and occasionally, vomiting. It is supposedly ‘safe’ but research in medical journals has linked CS to dermatitis, second-degree burns, respiratory problems, and at high enough doses fatal pulmonary oedoema (flooding of the lungs). Asthma sufferers may be particularly vulnerable, and in some cases it may cause an allergic reaction. There is also some debate as to its effectiveness since, in subjects under the influence of drugs such as alcohol and cocaine, it could have a reduced or delayed effect.

CS gas gained notoriety in 1968 when the media discovered it was being supplied by Britain to the US Army for use in Vietnam where it was thought responsible for an escalation in deaths. The scandal forced the Secretary of State to concede that “in no circumstances should it be used to assist in the control of disturbances”. Yet not only had it already been used for precisely such purposes in some of Britain’s erstwhile colonies, including Cyprus and British Guyana, but the very next year it was being used to stifle disturbances in Derry and Belfast.

“CS spray has been used in Northern Ireland for years and fears about its use are a load of rubbish ” - Sgt. Len Watts in the Medway Standard, 12/3/96

In response to the public outcry the Government commissioned the Himsworth report. Whilst acknowledging certain health risks up to and including death, the report concluded that the doses required were so much higher than that found in the gas being used in Northern Ireland that it did not constitute a significant health risk. Nevertheless CS gas has not been used in the province since.

Not so on the mainland. In 1981 Chief Constable (now Sir) Kenneth Oxford authorised its use as a response to three nights of rioting in Toxteth, Liverpool. Afterwards controversy over injuries caused by the use of CS ‘Ferret’ cartridges - shot from 12- bore shotguns and normally only used for siege situations - culminated in Oxford’s acknowledgement that such cartridges should never be used again to deal with public disorder. However, CS gas in one form or another still remained in police stores, and was even being carried by police during the notorious ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ in 1985. As a ‘non-lethal’ weapon it is also still being approved for export to countries such as Nigeria, where the military regime continues to use it in their ongoing repression of the Ogoni people.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) approved the French-made Alcetex CS spray in January, after a delay in preliminary trials last November. Howard announced his support of the ACPO approval in March. By strange symmetry it more or less coincided with the rather contradictory news that the Police Federation had overwhelmingly voted against being armed, and that the latest figures for assaults on police actually showed a decrease. All this was lost amid Howard’s tabloid justifications.

It has become apparent that the delay, originally dubbed obliquely as a ‘problem over health and safety’, actually involved a legal action by three police officers whose injuries from the trials included severe retinal blistering and facial burns. Rather than fading in hours, symptoms have persisted for weeks or even months. Liability for injury caused by the spray has now become a contentious issue, with one Chief Constable, Ted Crew, banning his CS spray instructors from training officers outside his own force because he does not want to be liable in any civil claim resulting from its (mis)use.

... the police have clearly been breaching their own rules.

There is mounting evidence of the reality behind Ted Crew’s fears. On March 26th, following a fight outside a club in Bromborough, CS was sprayed into a coach and police would not allow passengers to leave it or even open the doors for ventilation. As a consequence, David Aveyard, the angry father of one of the occupants, is co-ordinating an action against the police. Other notable cases of abuse include its use on a man to “calm him down” during the evacuation of a club in Shropshire and the spraying of another man in police cells. Wolverhampton police used CS on a community worker whilst attempting to detain a 16-year-old girl outside a community centre.

According to the human rights organisation Liberty, who have obtained a copy of ACPO’s confidential guidelines on its use, the police have clearly been breaching their own rules. The guidelines state that the spray is issued to provide officers with a “tactical advantage” when “dealing with violent subjects who cannot otherwise be restrained”. How on earth can this include handcuffed detainees such as Ibrahima Sey?

According to Walter G. Hyzer, a US expert interviewed by The Yorkshire Post, the sprays carry “a very high risk of serious injury” because their five per cent solution of the chemical is “too high a strength of CS”. Further, the solvent (methyl isobutyl ketone) used in the sprays to activate the CS is itself dangerous because it is flammable. According to a confidential memo leaked to the paper and dated last May, Dr Jill Tan of the Police Scientific Development Branch warned of eye and respiratory damage, especially at ranges shorter than the recommended minimum of three metres between spray nozzle and assailant. She also warns of a form of asphyxia caused to those handcuffed and laid on their front. It has since been revealed by the magazine Statewatch that Tan herself has been injured by the sprays.

Another danger identified by the Himsworth report was the possibility of permanent lung damage being caused to individuals who had built up a superficial tolerance to the more obvious symptoms of CS. This surely raises question regarding the long-term health effects on the police themselves.

According to ACPO’s press release, the replacement of CS sprays by oleoresin capsicum (OC) or pepper spray, used in the US, has “not been ruled out”. Although promoted as ‘organic’ pepper sprays are far from safe. Since 1990, pepper spray has been a contributing factor in the deaths of over 60 people in US police custody. The American Civil Liverties Union has undertaken a major study of its use in California and found “racially disproportionate deployment of OC by the LAPD” as well as a link between pepper spray, various ‘restraint’ holds and deaths in custody. More startlingly it has since become public that the head of the FBI’s ‘Less Than Lethal Weapons Programme’, Thomas WW Ward, who was instrumental in approving OC for national police use, did so after taking a substantial bribe from a multinational chemical manufacturer.

Despite short notice and little publicity, hundreds of people turned up to a memorial demonstration outside Ilford police station shortly after Ibrahima Sey’s death. Among the many banners one stood out ominously: “You can fuck your weapons anmesty!” Piara Powar, a spokesman for the Newham Monitoring Project, a local campaign group who helped organise the march, was not surprised by the reaction.

Although there is a growing body of evidence to support the family’s claim against the police, he doubts anything will come out of the enquiry. Speaking to Squall he said: “No officer has ever been dismissed for racism and recent history suggests that just like the killing of Brian Douglas - which involved the new truncheons - this will be another whitewash. The police will never be accountable so long as they continue to investigate their own misdeeds. The officers willl get off scott-free with yet another weapon at their disposal.”

The Civil Liberties Trust is currently running a CS spray monitoring project and would like to hear from anyone who has been subjected to the spray. Contact: The Civil Liberties Trust, 21 Tabard Street, London SE1 4LA.