Pepper Assault

December 21, 2012

You probably think you’ve experienced an epically bad commute. You won’t feel that way after reading Andy Goodwin’s story.

Two Mondays ago — of course it was a Monday — Goodwin glanced up from the Express crossword puzzle and saw two cops board his Red Line car at Forest Glen to confront a disoriented-looking man. Just as Goodwin decided to get out of the way by dashing to the doors, he says, the officers released pepper spray.

It missed their target, but the 56-year-old Aspen Hill resident got quite a mouthful, and as he stumbled into the next rail car, the symptoms kicked in.

“My whole throat reflexively clenched, and there was a stabbing pain in my eyes,” Goodwin says. His fellow passengers instructed him to use his newspaper as a tissue to mop up “my ongoing cascade of tears and mucous.” (Side note: Yet another reason to pick up Express!)

When it became clear he wasn’t recovering, someone called the operator and helped him get off at the next stop, where the station manager gave him water to wash out his eyes.

About 90 minutes after the incident, Goodwin could see, speak and breathe normally again, and he continued on the train to his Rosslyn office. The only lasting effects were puffy eyes and some pain caused by clenching his upper body for so long.

But his questions from that morning linger, including the biggie: What had that man done that would justify the use of pepper spray in an enclosed space?

According to Metro Transit Police deputy chief Ronald Pavlik, the individual in question had been trying to enter an emergency stairwell at the station. The officers tried to get him to stop, but he wouldn’t listen and started to get physical.

“He wanted to go hands-on,” says Pavlik, who explains that there’s no set policy for when to use pepper spray. “It’s based on the circumstances and the size of the suspect and the size of the officer.”

Although Pavlik says an indirect misting takes only a few minutes to wear off (“It’s no different than eating spicy foods,” he says), the police do consider who else nearby might catch a whiff. Even the officers themselves can be affected, Pavlik adds.

That’s why Metro Transit Police use pepper spray only once every three to five months, he estimates, and almost always on platforms or mezzanines rather than in trains or buses.

So it’s possible Goodwin just had awful luck. It’s also possible the officers were a little trigger-happy

with their pepper spray. From what Goodwin saw, the individual in question didn’t look like much of a threat. And, according to Metro, he was evaluated and sent to a hospital, not jail.

I get that pepper spray is a critical tool for officers trying to maintain order while avoiding physical confrontations, and I’d much rather hear about errant aerosols than stray bullets. But it’d be nice to know there were real guidelines, so we could brace ourselves for a blast of pepper spray during the morning commute.

Until then, Goodwin’s sticking with his new Red Line routine.

“You know some of the cars have little Plexiglas partitions? I’m probably better off there than where I was,” Goodwin says. “Those are my seats from now on.”

Time Travelers

In 2013, are you planning to try that bus route by your house, dust off your old bike or finally learn how to parallel park? We want to hear your transportation-related New Year’s resolutions for an upcoming column. Send your plans to Dcrider@wpost.com.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFit columnists and the Fit editor for Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby | December 20, 2012