Smoke and PepperBalls

Between police use of pepper spray and tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters, a global pandemic that targets the respiratory system and, now, extremely poor local air quality as a result of unprecedented wildfires in Oregon, people in Eugene are concerned about breathing on many different fronts, including concerns for the homeless. 

At the Eugene Police Commission meeting on Sept. 10, commissioners first discussed the urgent matter of how EPD could respond to unhoused people who don’t have indoor shelter that is necessary to stay safe as heavy smoke lingers in the area. 

They later talked about the current Eugene Police Department policies on using PepperBall projectiles, which have gained more attention this summer as police officers have publicly deployed this tactic in large groups. 

In their discussion of the hazardous smoke in the air from the Holiday Farm and other Oregon fires, the commission looked at reports of recent police interactions with the unhoused. “We have a whole sector of the population in town really suffering who need some kind of intervention,” Maisie Davis, one of the new commission members, said. “I’m not sure what that looks like, but I want to find a way to help them more than we are right now.”

Commissioner Silverio Mogart commented on a situation he’d heard of at Scobert Gardens Park in the Whiteaker Neighborhood earlier that day. Photos of two Eugene police officers interacting with people who appeared to have been camping at the park gained traction on Facebook, with commenters saying that the police had kicked them out of the park with nowhere else to go.

“My heart is so heavy with the thought that there are people living on the streets right now in the mess that we are all dealing with,” Mogart said. “I cannot imagine the horrors that these people are facing.”

In an email to Eugene Weekly, Eugene Police Department Director of Public Information Melinda McLaughlin said that the city has not been and will not be conducting camp sweeps.

“We did respond to a specific incident in Scobert Park this week based on significant community concerns about activity in the park including fights, illegal burning and unsanitary conditions” the email reads. “For the safety of all involved, EPD responded to these concerns. They also called in CAHOOTS who helped transfer people from the park to the clean air shelters that have been established in Eugene.” It continues, “Due to the current air quality conditions only prohibited camping sites that are imminent health and safety hazards and being prioritized for enforcement.” 

A Sept. 11 statement from the city of Eugene said that “due to low usage by community members thus far and to conserve limited resources,” two previous clean air shelters at the Hilyard and Peterson Community Centers were merged to the Lane Events Center, which is now serving as the only clean air shelter for the area. 

It will be open from 8 am to 8 pm. through the weekend. The city is currently not planning to extend these hours for overnight shelter.

Providing safe overnight shelter requires qualified service providers and the process to put that in place would likely be longer than the actual poor air quality event,” the statement said.  

For the rest of the meeting, police commissioners discussed and reviewed the EPD’s PepperBall projectile policy. The commission first planned on discussing the use of PepperBall, referring to the brand of these projectiles that EPD uses, at their meeting in January. Calls for oversight on EPD’s use of force policies have only grown stronger since then. 

While the commission cannot directly change police policy, it serves as an advisory body to the chief with the goal that EPD’s policies will represent overall community values.

There are currently five categories of regulations for PepperBall usage which cover general rules, usage criteria and procedures, post-usage maintenance and equipment maintenance.

The policy on these projectiles, which, as the name suggests, are filled with a pepper powder and are intentionally irritating, says that they “represent another less-lethal force option available for use by trained officers to help defend themselves or to gain compliance of resistant or aggressive individuals.” 

Davis pointed out a procedure policy that states that “any information known about a person’s pre-existing medical or physical conditions which might exacerbate the effects of PepperBall projectiles should be considered in determining whether and how to use the PepperBall projectiles.” 

She asked EPD Professional Standards Sergeant Kyle Williams how it would be possible to know if someone has a pre-existing medical condition before using a PepperBall projectile on members of a large crowd as a dispersal tactic. 

Williams said that EPD’s PepperBall usage has been “thrust into the spotlight” as it has been used for crowd-control during protests this summer. He said, however, that officers have previously used these projectiles in other situations, and that some of the policies are more applicable for situations where the police officers are only dealing with a few people, as opposed to a large group. 

Williams also said that the usual usage of PepperBall projectiles is not to aim them directly at an individual, but to shoot them at the ground and allow the pepper powder to get picked up by the breeze and spread throughout the air, functioning like pepper spray.

“It’s about getting the pepper powder into the air around people as a way of allowing us to have one more tool where we don’t have to dive in and get hands on,” Williams said. He said that while these projectiles are irritating, they typically don’t require medical aftercare. 

However, the medical impacts of pepper spray are not entirely known, and could be especially dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic. Williams did not acknowledge the allegations against EPD for using these PepperBall projectiles improperly, including for hitting people on their bodies and not just aiming at the ground. 

Eugene’s Civilian Review Board, which serves as another accountability body to the police department along with the commission, received at least one civilian allegation of misconduct regarding EPD use of PepperBall projectiles during the protests on the weekend of May 29-31. 

The CRB will be looking over these allegations in the fall, along with other police incidents from that weekend. 

Amanda McCluskey, who represents Eugene’s Human Rights Commission on the police commission, said that the ACLU has condemned the use of pepper balls and pepper spray as a police tactic, and asked Williams what he thinks could be a better alternative. 

“What tools should we be using for crowd dispersal? What other tools should we use? If we don’t have CS gas, smoke, pepper balls or pepper spray, and we don’t have the tools to do that job, how can we expect our officers to be out there when these things get violent?” Williams said. “While people don’t like the force tools we have, those are what we have. And by and large, we are using them in regard with the best practices and with legal authority provided to us.”

The commission had to push back discussion of handcuff policy from the Sept. 10 agenda, but is planning to also review that at an upcoming meeting. 

“These accountability metrics used are to ensure that officers understand that we expect a certain type of behavior from them,” Police Commission Chair Sean Shivers said after the meeting. “Police officers are in a position where the consequences of the mistake they make are very serious.”