Safety row as police issued with CS spray

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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

The police are to use CS spray canisters containing a solvent that can cause serious injury, rather than wait for a safer alternative to be developed. The disclosure came as some 2,300 officers in 16 forces throughout England and Wales were issued yesterday with the hand-held sprays.

A leaked document said that chief constables were not prepared to wait until a "safe" solvent - used as propellant in the canisters - had been found. The present solvent has been shown to cause "skin reddening, scaling and blistering".

An instructor with the Metropolitan Police, who collapsed after being sprayed during pre-trials last June, suffered 50 per cent burns to an eye and burns to the forehead.

The confidential Association of Chief Police Officers' document acknowledged that there were "possible health risks" involved in using the devices, but warned that an alternative could take many months or up to two years to develop.

Police chiefs argued yesterday that they had to "balance" the potential dangers of the spray with the protection it gave their officers from violent offenders.

Liberty, the civil rights group, called for more testing and an immediate halt to the six-month trials. "It is clear from the ACPO's research that the spray causes severe eye and facial injuries," said their director, John Wadham.

Lawyers believe any injuries caused during arrests could lead to a flood of compensation claims. The Metropolitan Police instructor, who needed hospital treatment, is already attempting to sue for damages, along with a constable and retired sergeant from Surrey, for injuries they say were the result of being sprayed with CS. Surrey and Hertfordshire police have already withdrawn from the trials because of safety fears.

The ACPO document, circulated to forces on 4 January, but leaked to the Yorkshire Post newspaper, says there are two options: "Firstly to await the development of a new product with a 'safe' solvent . . . secondly, to go ahead with the trials using the CS with [the solvent] MIBK as presently held by forces, in the knowledge of the possible health risks that have been identified."

It explained that the wait for a new "safe" product may take up to two years. "Chief constables may not feel that they are prepared to wait this long for a less than lethal option to protect officers," the document added, acknowledging that less research had been carried out on the sprays than was previously understood by ACPO.

Tony Burden, chief constable of Gwent and chairman of the association's working group on CS sprays, said yesterday: "There may be some side effects such as flaking of the skin, but this has to be balanced against the threat faced by police officers from violent persons especially those armed with weapons such as knives.

"Police officers should not be expected to be targets of such levels of violence and deserve to be properly protected."

Research has showed that up to 12 per cent of people could be unaffected by the spray. They include those who have been drinking, taking drugs or are being aggressive.

Officers have been issued with guidance on procedures to adopt once the spray has been used. Those arrested will be seen by a medical examiner and will be provided with an information sheet detailing possible side- effects on release.