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30 September 2014
Caught in the mist

Caught in the mist

The equipment carried by Scotland’s police officers has rarely been as topical as it is today. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland will soon publish an assurance review of current practices for the issue and carrying of firearms following the furore over Police Scotland’s decision to allow specialist officers to carry sidearms on routine patrols. The single force is in the process of replacing taser holsters in one of its 14 divisions after one frontline officer was inadvertently injured.

Now, Holyrood has learned of a further change being pursued regarding the incapacitant spray frontline officers are using to control aggressive and often violent offenders.

Police Scotland is now equipping its officers with PAVA – pelargonic acid vanillylamide – rather than CS spray. The changeover started before this summer’s Commonwealth Games with a stock purchased for use by mutual aid officers from England and Wales. However, the issuing of PAVA, which contains a synthetic chemical that imitates the heat effect of chillies, to firearms officers as well as public order officers is now under way north of the border. The intention is that the vast majority of front-facing operational officers will have transferred over by the end of this year.

CS had been standard issue to routine patrol officers in all but three of England and Wales’ 43 forces before its introduction across Scotland between 1999 and 2001. However, the majority down south have switched after a Sussex Police pilot with PAVA in 2001. Seven years later, Tayside Police was the first force in Scotland to trial it with its public order officers, though CS has, until now, been the norm across the country. “It’s something that we’ve been looking for for quite a while now,” says Peter Jones, health and safety secretary for the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), of the move to PAVA. Despite this, the public probably first encountered PAVA in August of this year when the Scottish Prison Service confirmed it had used it for the first time since being made available in Scottish jails in 2007.

From an operational point of view, the change is considered a commonsense one. CS creates a spray cloud that can extend effects to innocent members of the public or officers themselves. PAVA is a stream that primarily affects the eyes and, as such, is seen as being much more targeted. British Transport Police (BTP), therefore, was one of the first to adopt PAVA as a solution to the problem of cross-contamination in enclosed spaces, such as trains. “That, in many ways, is a huge attraction because it means that innocent bystanders aren’t going to get contaminated,” Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable for Operational Support, Bernie Higgins, told Holyrood. “It means that the officers can more quickly and effectively effect an arrest and it allows us to take control of the situation more readily... Officers could now go into a room, a cell even, a confined space, and discharge PAVA and only the person that’s hit with the PAVA would be affected, whereas previously, if you’re in a confined space, the last thing you’re going to do is use your CS because that will effectively render that whole room contaminated.”

Last month, a comparison report of the two sprays published by the Home Office noted that some officers from different forces found PAVA to be more effective on those under the influence of alcohol or drugs given it causes closure of the eyes. “There are not as many people who would be unaffected by PAVA,” adds Jones. “There are certain things that can reduce the effectiveness of CS, which don’t apply with PAVA.”

It also appears that officers will not have to be as close to discharge the spray. There is, of course, the caveat that greater accuracy is needed to be effective, according to the Home Office report, a potential difficulty in a fast-moving situation. “Anywhere around the face, it’s effective,” contends Higgins. “Again, there is a bit of an urban myth that if you don’t hit the person directly in the eyes it is not going to take effect. That is not our experience and certainly it is not what the PAVA manufacturers tell us as well and the demonstrations that we’ve seen quite clearly [show] you don’t need to get a direct hit to the eyes for it to be effective.”

Concerns also crystallised in 2012 over the safety of using tasers with CS spray when the officer who led the introduction of tasers to Britain, former head of the National Police Improvement Agency Peter Neyroud, warned of a greater risk of people suffering burns if the two were combined. “Some CS contains an accelerant which is flammable so you can’t taser anybody if they’ve already been CS’d because they’re likely to catch fire,” says BTP Chief Inspector Ray Shields. “Similarly, if you’ve already tasered someone and it has failed to operate, you then can’t use CS while they’re currently still travelling.”

Grounds for deployment, protocols, training, as well as the holster in which officers carry the canister, are unaffected by the change. Aftercare involved once an individual has been sprayed remains the same, though clothing does not face the same contamination risks. “We went into the deployment of CS spray with our eyes wide open,” says Higgins. “We knew the risk of contamination and that’s when you were training your officers and doing the refreshment with your officers, part of that training included the decontamination process. So we’ve never entirely been satisfied with CS. However, the first generation of PAVA wasn’t deemed to be what we were looking for – the new generation is. And again, in these austere times, it’s cheaper than CS. We have to replace CS so why don’t we replace it with a cheaper product that gives us the same operational effectiveness and negates some of the issues around contamination and potential for somebody to burst into flames. From our point of view, it made sound operational and fiscal sense.”

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