A trauma surgeon says he has encountered several patients who were pepper-sprayed in their noses and mouths even though they already were handcuffed.
"There's a pattern here. The police will handcuff a person, then pepper-spray them in their eyes and sometimes directly into their noses and mouths," said Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, a surgeon at Erie County Medical Center.
Simpkins' observations would appear to back up complaints being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.
Simpkins said the internal physical reaction from pepper spray -- inflammation of tissue -- is the telltale sign that a person has been sprayed in the nostrils or mouth.
"The inflammation exceeds that of others who have had the pepper spray just sprayed at their faces," said Simpkins, director the medical center's Violence Victimization Program.
Cuts and bruises on the wrists from handcuffs, he added, also serve as indicators that a person was sprayed after being subdued. The wrist markings, the doctor explained, could be caused by a struggle in reaction to being sprayed.
Simpkins has examined alleged police brutality victims for Loretta Renford, the founder of Concerned Citizens Against Police Abuse. She claims officers in some instances have tortured handcuffed prisoners by forcing open their mouths and spraying pepper spray inside.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating allegations that Buffalo officers have improperly used pepper spray. FBI agents are involved in conducting the non-criminal inquiry.
Buffalo, however, is not being singled out by the federal government, according to Deputy Police Commissioner George M. Loncar.
"It's my understanding other departments in the country are also being looked at," he said.
The chances of someone inhaling pepper spray exist because officers are trained to spray it into the faces of assaultive individuals who resist arrrest, the deputy commissioner said.
"If you spray someone in the face and his mouth is open, the spray is going to go in, but there's no advantage to spraying someone in the mouth. The basic purpose of the spray is to prevent further resistance, and the beneficial aspect is closure of the eyes," Loncar said.
Simpkins, who said he is willing to meet with federal investigators, thinks some officers take advantage of the circumstances when a sprayed prisoner closes his eyes.
"The officers will beat the individual who can't see anything. You can tell from the cuts on the wrists that these people were beaten after they were handcuffed," the doctor said.
Lt. Robert P. Meegan Jr., president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, said the department's 900 officers are not required to carry pepper spray, and those who do must receive training.
"It's mandatory that the officers get sprayed so that they themselves realize how disabling the pepper spray can be," Meegan said. "It gives them an appreciation of the magnitude of this."
The Buffalo Police Department, Meegan said, is one of a handful in the country that requires officers to be sprayed before they can carry it.
Responding to claims of misuse, the union chief said some defendants make false allegations against officers in an effort to gain leverage when "plea-bargaining their criminal charges in court."
Others make up stories, he said, in the hopes of winning a cash settlement from the city.
"Some people are lawsuit-conscious and want to make a quick buck, and there are enough hungry lawyers out there to do it," Meegan said.
The use of pepper spray, said Loncar, who has been sprayed, "is not a pleasant experience, but it is a much less traumatic event than being hit in the head with a nightstick."
The department has used pepper spray for the last six years, and in that time injuries to suspects and police officers have substantially decreased, according to Meegan.