Pepper spray is a highly potent incapacitant chemical which is causes temporary blindness and severe pain. The government has said the weapon is ‘not designed for crowd control technology’ and ACPO guidelines state that its use in public order situations is an option ‘of last resort’. Sussex police however, appear to consider themselves above such rules and guidelines. They have used pepper spray on demonstrations at least four times in the last four years. The latest incident occurred last Sunday, when hundreds of Brighton people turned out to make a stand against the right wing nationalist ‘March for England’.

Hundreds of Brighton people had turned out to made a stand against the right-wing, nationalist March for England (MfE), an event strongly associated with the anti-Islamic English Defence League. Around a hundred MfE marchers were shepherded by police through the large opposing crowd, only to be halted by 400 anti-fascists who stood in the street and refused to let them pass. Police then used horses and baton charges as well as pepper spray in their attempts to force people out of the way and push the march through. Ultimately they were forced to cut short the March for England and redirect it away from the planned route. Sussex police have conceded that pepper spray was used on the demonstrators, ‘in isolated instances’.

Sussex police have a considerable track record in their use of pepper spray against demonstrators. In June 2008 police used pepper spray, as well as batons and dogs against anti-arms trade protesters attempting to protest at the EDO factory in Brighton. Pepper spray was also used at a subsequent demonstration at the plant, in October 2008.

In 2010, a report by Sussex academics on student demonstrations in Brighton concluded that the police had used unjustified and disproportionate force against demonstrators, many of whom were of school age, including threatening the use of pepper spray. Last year pepper spray was used during a demonstration against the Sussex fox hunt, although the disturbances were not apparently sufficient to prompt any arrests.

Pepper spray, or PAVA (pelargonic acid vanillylamide), is a chemical incapacitant. It is delivered as a liquid spray, and it is aimed at the eyes, causing closure and temporary loss of sight as well as severe pain that can last for around 30 minutes. It has also been known to cause respiratory problems.

Sussex police pioneered the use of PAVA in 2000 / 2001 as an alternative to CS, after safety questions were raised. A number of police forces have now followed suit, although others have opted to continue their use of CS. Although the Home Office have consistently maintained incapacitant sprays to be safe, there are continuing concerns over the safety and long-term effects of both CS and PAVA. Last year Jacob Michael died after pepper spray was used to restrain him.

Pepper spray is supposed to be a weapon of ‘last resort’ in public order situations, to be used only in exceptional situations. Minister of State Lord Henley stated in a response to a parliamentary question just last month that;

“CS and pelargonic acid vanillylamide (PAVA) incapacitants are approved for police use in the UK. These are in the form of a handheld spray for use by police officers and are not designed for use as a crowd-control technology.”

ACPO’s manual of guidance on keeping the peace states that the use of incapacitant spray to disperse a ‘riotous assembly’ should be authorised at Chief Constable or Assistant Chief Constable / Commander level, and must be used in public order situations only “as a last resort, where loss of life, serious injury and widespread damage are likely”. While individual police officers also have the right to use incapacitant spray when necessary to protect themselves and colleagues, that use must be fully justified.

According to an eye-witness in Brighton on Sunday, while there was no denying that the anti-fascist protesters were having a significant impact on the ability of the March for England to make its way through Brighton, pepper spray was being used in circumstances where there was no serious threat of loss of life, serious injury or widespread damage.

“Pepper spray was being used at close range, when people were essentially just obstructing the route of the march. Sure, there was some pushing and shoving, but no-one had weapons, and the police were clearly not in any physical danger”.

There were reports of eggs and flour being thrown at the March for England, and later of bottles being thrown towards police lines. While the police may point to the throwing of bottles as justification for the use of pepper spray, eye-witnesses maintain that this occurred some time after pepper spray was deployed.

Pepper spray and CS were originally introduced as an intermediate option between the baton and firearms. But what was intended as a highly prescribed piece of technology has since become a routine mechanism for restraint and crowd control.

Once again, we are seeing significant evidence of ‘mission creep’ in the police use of dangerous weapons. With such repeated use over the last few years, the use of pepper spray by Sussex police appears to have become ‘normalised’, perceived as an acceptable option for use against protesters and in any public order scenario. Such normalisation may result in other forces following suit, and a marked increase across the UK in the use of chemical weapons in protest situations.

Serious questions need to be asked about the use of pepper spray at demonstrations. Otherwise protesters may be well advised to go to protests armed not only with face coverings and hard hats, but also with eye masks and swimming goggles.