It is boilerplate in CopLand that oleoresin capsicum, aka pepper spray or OC, is the best thing next to a baton or a blackjack (aka tump) for getting someone’s ‘tenshun. You get a face-full of this stuff and you will be guaranteed to have an awful day (I have sprayed myself just to see what it was like–a dreadful experience). Unlike older versions of disabling sprays that can and do kill, like CS and CN (tear gas) and others, OC has proven to be safe and effective for centuries. Well, safer.

“The Chinese put ground cayenne in rice paper and flung it in the face of their opponents, and Japanese ninjas used ground pepper to disable opponents as well. During Japan’s Tukagawa Empire, police used the ‘metsubishi” a box used to blow pepper into the eyes, as an instrument of political torture against the dispossessed” (December/January 2000 issue of Earth First! Journal,

But there are limits to how OC should be used. The most hazardous aspect to OC is its effect of reducing airway capacity via temporary inflammation of the mucous tissue.

The procedure that one should employ, according to a Raleigh police officer and the RPD’s written directives, is: 1) subdue with OC; 2) get control of the suspect; 3) irrigate on site or transport them to the nearest fire station and wash the OC away.

What Raleigh’s Department Operation Instructions do not say, in a glaring omission (according to many other papers I have examined), is that what the officer should not do is place a subject suffering from OC exposure in the dorsal superior position (belly down) with handcuffs behind the back. The weight of the organs pressing on the cardiopulmonary system causes a reduced ability to transport air. Combined with airway restriction, suddenly you have two strikes against you.

The most common means and manner of death via OC actually is not the spray, but a condition know as “positional asphyxia.”

The National Institute of Justice had this to say: “OC was not the cause of death in any of the cases, concluding instead that the deaths in these cases were the result of other factors. More specifically, it was concluded that in 18 of the 22 cases, positional asphyxia was the cause of death, with drugs and/or disease also being contributing factors.”

F riday, noon. I’m lying in a forest, face down on dry leaves, hands behind my back, feeling the weight of my innards. I went downtown to get the “Five Day Report” following the in-custody death of Batrane (it was misspelled; it is Batrone) Jermal Hedgepeth, who died May 11 after police pepper-sprayed him during an arrest. They had come to pick him up for failing to appear in court on a charge of public consumption of alcohol (Independent Weekly, May 18, 2005, 2005-05-18/triangles.html). Police said he retreated into his apartment, and when he came out, put his hand in his pocket against orders, and they moved in. Turns out he had a set of keys in his hand. He had been trying merely to lock his front door.

The more I look at this thing the worse it gets. Quite simply, the short, two-page narrative supplied by RPD has more holes in it than a Jackson County highway sign; it asks more questions than it answers.

“They were all over him,” said James Hargrove, quoted in the N&O, and everyone I’ve talked to has said the same thing. But nowhere in this report does it say that cops were piled on top of Trone. While I lay there in the woods, I thought of what would happen if I were suddenly to have several hundred pounds of cop on top of me. That seems to be exactly what happened: Batrone Jermal Hedgepeth may well have been simply crushed under the weight of cops, to the point that he actually vomited, probably because there was so much weight on him the contents of his stomach were actually forced out of his body.

We do not know yet what the man died from. Asphyxiation? Inhaling vomit? Heart failure? Results of the autopsy are pending, awaiting toxicology, but one thing is clear: The methods used to restrain and subdue Trone that night were clearly inappropriate and potentially deadly according to every source I have examined. Whether from poor training, poor discipline, who knows, somehow the worst techniques possible were employed and likely killed the man. We do not know who was there, who was on top of him, or anything else in detail. There are other documents, most importantly, a “Use Of Force Report” that could shed light on those, but for now, RPD won’t make them public.

Lacking that, we are left with two avenues: speculation and what the survivors and witnesses say.

We arrived at Trone’s mother’s house Saturday afternoon. In the front, in a glider, a woman sat holding an armload of babies. “Linda’s inside,” she said blankly. “I’m her sister.”

The contrast was heartbreaking. While the woman gazed at the ground, her life in ruins, the three toddlers gurgled and cooed, wild, happy eyes shining like obsidian, gleaming white teeth. They remembered us from the funeral service and were really, really happy to see us, reaching out, laughing, like it was the best day they’d ever had and we were the reason.

Inside the house, I was struck by the ordinariness of it all–a nice little house, the smell of domesticity, cooking. Chicken was thawing in the sink, just like my mother’s house.

Linda Hunter, bearing the same weary expression worn by her sister, sat in a large upholstered chair. Paula, Trone’s widow, sat in another across the darkened living room, curtains drawn against the dancing sun and trees shimmering in the breeze. Linda spoke softly:

“He wasn’t a thug. Batrone did not like trouble.”

At 5 a.m. the day Trone was supposed to be in court on the open container charge, Linda had checked into Wake Med with heart problems. Trone did what anyone would have done.

“He sat right by me. He would do that. When he would get off his shift at The News & Observer at 6 on Sunday morning, he’d come over and just lie on that couch, sit and sleep.” I was sitting right where Trone sat.

It had been three and a half years since Trone had been locked up. Still, the family kept money so that if he did get in trouble, Steven, his brother, could get him out. Trone knew that.

“There wasn’t any reason for him to try to fight them. He knew he could get out,” Paula said. Trone had taken the money to go downtown to make right his failure to appear on the public consumption charge–he’d gotten out of a car, opened a beer it seems, and got popped walking to his apartment.

Linda said Batrone had a bipolar condition and that his meds were in the other room.

I asked Linda how he got along with the police.

“Trone told me, he said, ‘Mama, police get ahold of you, they will kill you, they get you in the back of the car, they will beat the hell out of you.”

She told me of previous arrests, how he would offer his hands for cuffing and climb into the back of the patrol car.

“He wasn’t violent,” Paula says. “But he was his own man, he did what he wanted to do and the police do not like that. They didn’t like him.”

Duncan McMillan, his former attorney, talked about his record: two assaults on a female, some minor drug charges and some R.O.D.’s–resist, obstruct, delay. R.O.D. means the subject was not cooperative; if Batrone had actually fought the cops, there would have been additional charges of assault on an officer; he just wouldn’t obey commands.

“He had a lot to live for,” Paula went on, saying he was making money every day doing day labor. “He had it together.” She gets into the arrest. “He was completely covered by police. He was yelling, ‘Get off of me,’ he was yelling for them to get off of him,” not resistance so much as an automatic reaction, fighting off death, it seems.

“I was always there for him,” his mother cried. “But I couldn’t save him. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t save him. And they killed him.” Linda was sobbing now, a big sound coming from deep down. Paula’s voice rose between a scream and a roar.

There was an emotional explosion in the small house, as if it had come loose of its very foundation, spinning and banging around. Paula ran out shouting onto the front porch. I stayed scribbling, the woman’s pain cutting into my ears like a rusty can opener. Finally, I fled to the out of doors. Paula stood there, eyes sparkling with rage.

Just then, two middle-aged men arrived in a big, beat-up LTD. One stayed in the car, the other got out, brushed past me, and sprawled on the couch examining me in a not friendly way.

“I will never forgive the Raleigh police,” Linda says. In the end, there was nothing I could do except hug this perfect stranger and tell her that every day will get brighter. I don’t know if even I believe it at this point.

U.S. Marine Corps instructions on use of pepper spray
Positional asphyxiation of subjects exposed to OC can occur if they are placed in confined spaces or on their stomach with their hands cuffed behind their back.

The consumption of alcohol and or cocaine may also contribute to positional asphyxiation of subjects sprayed with OC. The constricted position could result in respiratory distress/failure.

While under the effects of OC, training regarding the restraint of combative subjects will emphasize placing subjects in a sitting position or on their backs. Instructors will conduct restraint training separate from OC exposure. Instructors will emphasize that all subjects sprayed with OC will be kept under constant supervision to ensure their breathing is not impaired.

–from a U.S. Marine Corps ALMAR (All Marines Message)