DEPARTMENT of Home Affairs member Alan Crowe didn’t research the details of two cases when police were accused of using an incapacitant spray while not following guidelines.
The admission came despite Eddie Lowey tabling a number of questions – published last week – on the department’s use of pelargonic acid vanillylamide, or Pava, spray for Mr Crowe to answer at Legislative Council on Tuesday.
Mr Lowey asked whether the department was concerned that, in both cases, Pava had been used on people being detained who were not resisting arrest and at a distance below the recommended one-metre minimum.
Mr Crowe said: ‘I think there has been some press comment about this and if you take it in context, the use of spray is very small compared to other arresting tactics.’
But he said that he wasn’t aware of the details of each case and would speak to Chief Constable Mike Langdon about it.
At the sitting, members heard that Pava was used 59 times by police – which equates to more than once a week – in 2010-11. It accounts for 2.4 per cent of arrests.
The previous year police used it 63 times – in 2 per cent of arrests. In 2008-09 it was used 36 times – in 1.5 per cent of arrests.
Mr Crowe said ‘very few arrests’ resulted in the use of Pava spray.
He said guidelines state the use of Pava spray was a ‘very low level in intervention’ that was just above officer presence, verbal communication and ‘empty hand skills’ – and below handcuffing. He said its use ‘helps safeguard police officers who often have to carry out difficult and dangerous work’.
‘Comprehensive guidance’ is issued to police officers on the use of incapicitant spray and training is ‘mandatory’. It includes after care for those it has been used on. Officers have to carry out refresher training every two years.
He said when Pava spray is used a pro forma is completed, which is ‘scrutinised’ by staff and the DHA. He said this ensured its use was ‘consistently’ reviewed. He said that since the introduction of Pava ‘not one complaint’ about its use had been upheld. Under further questioning, he said one complaint had been upheld in the last two years ‘in matters that included the spray’.
Juan Turner asked Mr Crowe whether he agreed the policy should be reviewed to ensure the use of Pava ‘doesn’t become the norm of spray first, ask questions later’.
Mr Crowe agreed, adding: ‘We need to ensure that what’s being done is reasonable and proportionate and doesn’t become the norm for every situation and that other interventions are used as well.’
Dudley Butt, a former detective chief inspector, asked for figures on the usage of incapicitant spray since its introduction about 12 years ago. He said he believed it had only been used in ‘less than a handful’ of arrests in the first few years.
Following a request Mr Crowe said he would ask Mr Langdon for statistics on the use of incapicitant spray to be included in the chief constable’s annual report.
Last week the Examiner reported on page 1 that police used Pava at ‘point blank’ range on a man they were arresting for an unpaid taxi fare. A court heard officers sprayed it into the face of Aaron James Knott, aged 20, of Lheannagh Park, Douglas, after he went to ground.
His advocate Darren Taubitz argued police had not followed guidelines, saying his client’s head was pulled back and he was sprayed ‘point blank’ in the face.
Police guidelines state the spray should not be used at a distance of less than one metre, unless there is a risk to the officer.
Mr Knott was given 50 hours community service for resisting arrest and obtaining services without payment.
Last month a court heard officers sprayed Brian O’Riordan, aged 29, as he resisted arrest by lying down at his former home in Douglas. When he turned his face away from the spray, they rubbed it into his eyes. At the time of the incident Mr O’Riordan was facing an assault charge, which was later withdrawn.