Should I Use My Club or My Pepper Spray?

How riot police decide which weapon to use on unruly protesters.

Occupy Wall Street riot police
New York Police Department officers with riot helmets man a barricade at Broadway and Exchange Street in 2011.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

Hundreds were arrested in Occupy Wall Street protests Thursday, in a nationwide “Day of Action” marking the two-month anniversary of the movement. Some protesters were beaten with batons, and at many times throughout the protests others have been fired upon with beanbag rounds, tear gas, and pepper spray. How does a policeman decide whether to hit a protester with a nightstick or spray him in the face?

It depends on the environment and the demeanor of the crowd. Police are trained to follow what’s called the “use-of-force continuum.” As a first step, officers are supposed to use verbal commands and then empty-handed physical contact (e.g., pushing) as primary means of getting unruly people in line. If that doesn’t work, they move through various degrees of less-lethal force, and then to their firearms as a last resort, depending on how the suspect responds. But the details of the “less-lethal” part of the continuum are ambiguous. Beanbag rounds, Tasers, pepper spray, tear gas, and billy clubs are all considered intermediate steps, but different police departments disagree over the order in which they should be considered. Many departments have varying opinions, for example, about whether one should use a Taser before pepper spray or vice-versa.

These sorts of guidelines are used in training new officers, but are less relevant in real-world situations. When faced with a particular suspect, or a specific crowd of protesters, police are more likely to make a snap judgment about the appropriate level of force to apply. Many officers consider their Tasers to be the safest option when faced with one person. However, Tasers are not effective against crowds. Police tend to prefer pepper spray when dealing with large numbers of disobedient people, so they can target multiple rioters in quick succession. For aggressive crowds—people throwing rocks, for example—officers use beanbag rounds or rubber bullets to inflict more pain. Projectiles tend to be more dangerous than other crowd-control methods, and a shot to the head can prove fatal, as was the case in Boston after the Red Sox won the 2004 American League Championship Series. Striking with old-school police batons can be similarly risky. Though police officers are instructed to aim for the limbs, they may break bones. Furthermore, police departments concerned with their public image note that beating protesters with batons looks worse on the evening news than delivering pepper spray.

The availability of these weapons also varies from department to department. Most metropolitan police departments in the United States have a diverse arsenal at their disposal. Police departments in suburban and rural areas might not have so many options. The popularity of tear gas has declined with the increasing popularity of methods like Tasers, pepper spray, and beanbag rounds, because tear gas cannot be used with much precision and is much more difficult to clean up. Regardless of availability and department protocol, some officers may have a personal preference for using one weapon over another.

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Explainer thanks Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council.