It sounds really scary. People in Ellsworth are shooting pepper spray into the eyes of other people. But don’t worry. It’s going on in a class in law enforcement at the Hancock County Technical Center. It hurts a lot, but nobody is protesting. And it is good training for future law enforcement officers.
The students warm up by doing push-ups or running a lap. Then, one at a time, they face Tim Bland, a Bar Harbor police officer who is a certified pepper spray instructor. He aims the canister, something like a small hairspray can, into a student’s face and presses the button.
The student, squinting in near-excruciating pain, must first radio for backup and punch a padded shield a few times, as if dealing with a violent person, before ducking into a bucket of water to wash out the eyes. The spray, also known as OC, for Oleoresin Capsicum, is an oily extract of pepper plant, but it is many times hotter than the hottest Mexican chili.
Ample precautions are taken. The center had sent letters of explanation noting possible side effects, and stating that the training was optional and not required, and getting a sign-off by parents. A few students opted out the day of the training, having changed their minds after signing releases. A nurse is present.
The instructor is Scott Baillargeon, a retired Air Force security policeman who now is a University of Maine police officer. He explained that the 18 students in two classes, all 15- to 19-year-olds — four females and 14 males — had been trained for four weeks on when officers should use force on suspects, as well and the use of the police baton, handcuffing techniques and searching for weapons.
Undergoing the pepper-spray shows the aspiring law enforcement officers how it feels and teaches them to use it only when necessary, said Mr. Baillargeon. It also shows how their own bodies will react if they are sprayed in the course of an altercation.
Pepper spray is widely used as an effective nonlethal law enforcement device for controlling potentially violent suspects. It is also advertised as a personal safety device for the public, but the Ellsworth demonstration suggests that private individuals should use it only after safety instruction. An attacker could grab the canister and turn it on the victim.