Police academy: Grit, spit and pepper spray | Mirror series

Federal Way police recruit Carl VanDyke labored the burning pain that accompanied one of his first rites of passage as a potential officer.

On April 22, as part of VanDyke's 19-week Basic Law Enforcement Academy training, he and his peers learned the effects and consequences of using OC — also known as pepper spray. The non-lethal chemical compound is carried by many officers.

The spray is used to control and temporarily subdue uncooperative suspects. It leaves the target with a burning sensation that increases or resurfaces when one's heartbeat rises and a person's pores open, Basic Academy Assistant Cmdr. Sgt. Rich Phillips said.

Often, the compound is administered to the eyes, temporarily causing extreme pain and limiting vision. The initial pain and effects of the spray last minutes and will completely disappear within about a day, Phillips said.

"It's mind over matter," he said.

But before the recruits are allowed to carry the stinging spray, which is composed of finely ground oleoresin capsicum from peppers, they must learn what it feels like to experience a face full of the irritant.

"It's like someone set your face on fire," VanDyke said. "It hurts so bad you want to tear your eyeballs out."

The men and women each completed an obstacle course immediately following an up-close encounter with pepper spray. The test prepared the recruits for the day when they may have to use the device on a suspect — or worse, when a suspect compromises the weapon and uses it on the officer.

Eyes open, mind alert

Upon command, a motionless VanDyke opened his eyes and was immediately met with a steady stream of the spray.

Seconds later, he doubled over and began rubbing his eyes with balled fists. Pepper spray and saliva dripped from his face.

He then jogged to a punching bag, where he imitated an encounter with a resistant suspect. Struggling to keep his eyes open and mind clear, VanDyke was asked a series of cognitive questions, which were designed to teach him how to push aside the effects of the spray and think logically and rationally.

Next, he found his way to a plastic dummy and baton. Again, he simulated a struggle with a suspect. Hitting the life-size doll across the chest and shouting "Federal Way police, stop resisting," VanDyke circled the dummy.

The last section of the course required him to make an arrest. Spitting, coughing and wiping his eyes, he apprehended the subject, loaded him into a police car and simulated calling dispatch for a criminal history check.

A few dunks of the head in a tub of warm water as well as no-tears baby shampoo washed the substance from VanDyke's hair, neck, face, eyes and eyelashes. The experience was not quite what he was expecting, nor was it pleasant.

"I didn't really know what to expect," he said. "It was a lot worse than I thought it would be honestly, a lot more debilitating, a lot more painful. It really hurts to open your eyes."

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