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If you're a suspect struggling with the police -- a muddle-headed course of action -- be sure to avoid the pepper spray. Sprayed into the face, the concoction typically causes a gagging sensation and a severe smarting of the eyes that quickly forces them closed.

Those unpleasant symptoms disappear relatively soon. But for the moment, a good dose of pepper spray can end the fight and bring the suspect under control.

Used by Buffalo police for six years, pepper spray is a helpful tool for subduing violent people. Although its effects are not the same for everyone, the spray can shorten the struggle and minimize injuries to police and suspect. It can also prevent the necessity of using more dangerous weapons, such as a club or baton or even a gun.

But pepper-spraying the mouth or nose of someone already under police control, when he or she is handcuffed and no longer a threat, misuses this legitimate tool. It is the responsibility of police to arrest lawbreakers, not to punish them. Punishment is a duty for others.

The circumstances at the moment are the critical point in whether the use of pepper spray is legitimate or not. That ought to be the crux of an appropriate, non-criminal investigations under way by the U.S. Justice Department. Justice is looking into claimed misuses of the pepper spray by police officers in Buffalo and, reportedly, several other cities.

In Buffalo, serious allegations of pepper-spray abuse have been brought by individuals, physicians and defense attorneys.

"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," says Loretta Renford, founder of Concerned Citizens Against Police Abuse. "To me, it's torture."

Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, a trauma surgeon at the Erie County Medical Center, says he has observed patients whose inflamed tissues indicate that they were pepper-sprayed directly in their mouths and noses after they were handcuffed. The degree of inflammation, he said, would be less with proper use of the spray during a struggle.

The suspicions that some police officers have abused citizens with pepper spray are, unfortunately, not easy to dismiss with the 1996 Mark Virginia case still so fresh in this community's memory.

Wrongly suspected of a drug offense, Virginia resisted arrest. An early-morning scuffle ensued. Police described it as a violent fight. Numerous officers arrived on the scene. Virginia died from an injury that happened after his hands were cuffed behind his back and he was surrounded by police officers.

Operating outside local police jurisdictions, the U.S. Justice Department is an appropriate agency to conduct the pepper-spray probes, which are also run out of Washington. The agency can run them with a professionalism and independence that will give the conclusions credibility.

Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske indicates the Buffalo Police Department is cooperating fully with the Justice Department examination, as it should. If it has nothing to hide, why fear an independent inquiry?

Nor should the public assume any negative conclusion. Police officers here are trained in the use of pepper spray. Guidelines for its use have been updated twice, the commissioner adds, since 1994. Suspects making claims can be mistaken about circumstances. Some may lie in order to secure more lenient treatment or to support insurance claims.

Buffalo police employ pepper spray about 60 times a month. It can be difficult, with or without the spray, to bring a violent 200-pound man under control. There can be mistakes without intent.

But the charges made by Renford, Simpkins and others must be taken seriously and reviewed.

Pepper spray, Kerlikowske says, "has been an effective tool as long as it is used within the guidelines." One purpose of this probe is to make certain the guidelines are right.

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