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Eye Docs’ Crystal-Clear Message to NYPD: Stop Using Pepper Spray

An NYPD officer fires pepper spray during a 2014 protest.
An NYPD officer fires pepper spray during a 2014 protest.
a katz/Shutterstock

Eye doctors and surgeons have an urgent message for the NYPD: Stop using “blinding weapons” on protesters marching against police brutality.

“Nobody deserves to go blind for exercising their right to protest,” said Dr. Ashley Brissette, an assistant professor of ophthalmology and surgeon at Weill-Cornell/ New York-Presbyterian and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

“This isn’t a safe way to control social boundaries and needs to change,” Brissette told THE CITY, referring to the Police Department’s use of pepper spray.

“They say it’s non-lethal, but pepper spray and tear gas can cause severe injury and chemical burns. This isn’t about politicizing anything, it’s about advocating for the health and safety of our patients. These are blinding weapons.”

Social Media Pressure

Brissette spoke as the academy, the world’s largest association of eye physicians and surgeons representing 32,000 members, launched a hashtag campaign #NotOneMoreEye.

The social media effort seeks to end law enforcement’s use of chemical crowd-control agents and rubber bullets amid protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police.

The academy’s admonition follows warnings from city health experts that the use of pepper spray among mass gatherings may also kindle a new wave of COVID-19 cases.

The NYPD does not use tear gas or rubber bullets, a spokesperson said, but confirmed the department does deploy pepper spray as a crowd-control agent.

The Tactical Operations section of the NYPD Patrol Guide, written before the coronavirus crisis, notes, “In many cases, O.C. [oleoresin capsicum] pepper spray will reduce or eliminate the need for physical force to effect an arrest or gain custody. It will often reduce the potential for injuries to members and suspects that may result from physical restraint.”

The guide goes on to caution officers, however, “If possible, avoid using O.C. pepper spray on persons who appear to be in frail health, young children, women believed to be pregnant, or persons with known respiratory conditions. Avoid discharging O.C. pepper spray indiscriminately over a large area for disorder control.”

Videos shared on social media appear to show officers spraying crowds of demonstrators indiscriminately at times.

The Police Department did not respond immediately to a request for comment regarding the academy’s calls to stop using the spray.

Bringing on the Heat

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pepper spray is a type of “tear gas” or “riot control agent.” OC pepper spray is made from a concentrated form of the same inflammatory chemical that adds heat to chili peppers. Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention bans its use in war.

Though the specific chemical makeup of various aerosolized defense agents may be different from each other, experts say they have similar effects — and may cause eye injuries including hyphema, secondary glaucoma, cataracts and traumatic optic neuropathy.

“Ophthalmologists, like many Americans, have mobilized to protect their communities from COVID-19 in recent weeks,” Dr. Anne L. Coleman, president of the academy, said in a statement. “We are saddened that these same communities now need our professional skill to treat blinding eye injuries from senseless violence.”

Brissette noted that protesters in other cities had suffered eye globe ruptures and other catastrophic ocular injuries from rubber bullets, as well as from tossed tear-gas and pepper-spray canisters.

Dr. Ashley Brissette, an ophthalmology professor and surgeon at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Dr. Ashley Brissette.
Courtesy of Chris Ayala/@raptographer

A journalist in Minneapolis says she was permanently blinded in one eye when hit by a rubber bullet fired by police on May 30.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Miami Herald reporters recorded officers shooting a nonviolent protester in the head with foam rubber bullets, causing an orbital fracture.

Brissette declined to get into specifics regarding the number or types of eye injuries she has seen, citing federal privacy regulations.

But she noted the academy was concerned enough to begin tracking eye injuries sustained in protests nationwide.

Vincent Variale, president of the FDNY Uniformed EMS Officers Union, Local 3621, confirmed EMS had seen a spike in a variety of trauma-related injuries — including those involving eyes, since the New York City protests began last week. He declined to comment on the Police Department’s use of pepper spray.

“We’re all for peaceful protests, but the police have to do what they have to do to protect the peace,” he added. “I’m not going to tell them how to do their job.”

What to Do if Sprayed

Brissette offered advice to protesters who’ve been pepper sprayed: Don’t touch the eye area. Since pepper spray is oil-based, touching the area will spread the oil.

Blink to help flush the eyes. Flush the eyes with lots of clean water or eyewash available at most pharmacies.

Milk is not recommended for flushing eyes as it is not sterile, she said. Wash the skin around the eyes with baby shampoo, which will break down the oil without irritating the eyes. Avoid contact lenses — they can trap the chemicals on the eye surface.

“Part of the reason these agents continue to be used, I think, is that law enforcement agencies don’t realize how devastating the effects can be,” Brissette said.

She hesitated when asked if she would recommend New Yorkers steer clear of demonstrations.

“The protests are certainly important,” Brissette said. “If you are aware and can accept the risks, by all means participate — but wear safety glasses or goggles.”

As the hashtag campaign notes, she added, “Using your voice shouldn’t mean losing your vision.”

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