The U.S. Justice Department is investigating claims that some Buffalo police officers misused pepper spray on people they arrested.
While declining to be specific, law enforcement officials said citizen groups and criminal defense lawyers have made several allegations about Buffalo police abuse of pepper spray.
"Some victims have been handcuffed and then pepper-sprayed. Some police have opened the mouths of victims and sprayed them in the mouth, and in the nostrils," said Loretta Renford, founder of Concerned Citizens Against Police Abuse. "To me, it's torture. We have medical evaluations to substantiate this."
The non-criminal inquiry, which involves FBI agents, was confirmed late Tuesday by interim U.S. Attorney Denise E. O'Donnell and Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske.
"Commissioner Kerlikowske and Mayor Masiello are viewing this investigation positively," Ms. O'Donnell said, adding that they promised complete cooperation.
"This investigation is not criminal in nature. It is being conducted out of Washington, and the focus is to see if there have been problems, and to seek remedies and changes in department policies if they are needed," Ms. O'Donnell said.
Jeanne-Noel Mahoney, district director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was among those welcoming the federal investigation.
"We have a number of reports that police have used pepper spray as a punishment device, rather than just to bring someone under control," she said. "We've had reports that they've sprayed people who are sitting in patrol cars, in handcuffs."
When asked how many such reports her office has heard, Mrs. Mahoney said "many," adding that she plans to forward the information to the federal investigators.
Buffalo police have stated in the past that pepper spray is used in the department approximately 60 times a month.
Police are not supposed to use the spray in enclosed areas.
"But it has been used in Police Headquarters and even on a school bus," Ms. Renford said. "Officers have rarely been penalized for (alleged) abuse because their union takes such a hard stand in their defense."
Ms. Renford said she wrote to the Justice Department last year, asking for an investigation.
Among the allegations of police misuse of pepper spray are:
Pepper spray was used on a city school bus on Military Road on Oct. 3. Officers said they went onto the bus to investigate a call that a student was carrying a gun. The spray was discharged after a 13-year-old girl kicked an officer in the stomach and groin. Police confirmed they are conducting an internal investigation.
An officer at the Northwest District Station was disciplined last month after he sprayed pepper spray on the door handle to his captain's office. The spray went into the station's ventilation system and into a lobby, where several citizens suffered medical problems due to the odor. The officer later apologized to the citizens, members of Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Church.
A man arrested on Bailey Avenue in December 1995 claimed that two officers kicked him in the head and pepper-sprayed him while he was on the ground. Police said the allegations of misconduct were not confirmed by their internal investigation.
In August 1995, Ms. Renford claimed she was sprayed by police who were arresting a young man in her Mapleridge Avenue neighborhood. Ms. Renford, who has respiratory problems, said the incident caused her to gasp for breath and resulted in a nine-day stay in Millard Fillmore Hospital.
Ms. Renford said she was about 5 to 10 feet from the officer using the spray.
"When that spray first hit me, it cut off my breath," Ms. Renford said.
In July 1994, two men who were arrested during a drug investigation on Zenner Street said police used pepper spray against them. One man claimed police sprayed him in the face after he had been brought under control and his hands were cuffed behind his back. Police denied wrongdoing in the incident, which resulted in pickets at City Court.
Kerlikowske filed no brutality charges against the officers named in the complaint, but sent them to a sensitivity-training program.
In late 1995, an organization called the National Coalition on Police Accountability claimed 41 people in the United States had been killed by police pepper sprays since 1992. Updated statistics were not available late Tuesday.
Kerlikowske said Tuesday that he spoke to Mrs. O'Donnell about the investigation and promised his department will cooperate.
The commissioner said the use of police pepper sprays has caused controversy throughout the nation. He added that his department has been updated on the use of the spray twice since 1994.
"It has been an effective tool, as long as it is used within guidelines," Kerlikowske said.