ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - Recruits at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. They are less than one month from graduation, and the worst is behind them.
This month, recruits got hands-on training with some of the "less lethal" tools a police officer carries on their belt, including pepper spray and a Taser. These tools are often used to de-escalate an emotionally charged situation before it becomes violent.
"I think it's important for them to understand if they're going to carry that weapon on their belt, to understand the effects of that weapon," said academy instructor Eric Austermann.
Instructors at the academy refer to pepper spray as "OC" -- which stands for oleoresin capsicum -- and is the active ingredient in pepper spray. Austermann said the substance is made from the oils and waxes of the cayenne pepper plant.
"(It) incapacitates you so much from being able to think, from being able to see your surroundings, from being able to do anything physical," said Recruit Mary Mills.
The substance restricts a person's vision because the burning sensation causes a person to want to close their eyes, it prevents a person from taking deep breaths, and the pain a person feels distracts them from thinking about anything else, Austermann said.
Despite these effects, after recruits are sprayed in the face, they are pushed to think, see and fight as they move through an obstacle course.
One by one, Austermann began the exercise by asking a recruit to close their eyes and recite a lesson they previously learned in class. While the recruit was recalling and reciting the lesson, they were sprayed in the face with O.C.
Austermann then told the recruit to open their eyes and blink a few times. At that point, the recruits began to feel the full effect of the substance. Their eyes burned. Many struggled to catch their breath. They appeared to be struggling with the burning sensation.
Austermann told the recruits to finish reciting their lesson, challenging them to fight through the pain and think clearly.
Next, the recruit who had been sprayed had to move towards two of their fellow recruits holding padded mats. The sprayed recruit had to execute arm and knee strikes before being told to move on.
Then, the recruit had to move through a series of cones, zigzagging back and forth. The recruit had to force their eyes open to spot where their next target was. Instructors and fellow recruits encouraged the participant and helped to guide them with vocal commands.
The sprayed recruit then found another padded mat on the ground and performed another series of strikes. They then got up and made their way to another fellow recruit who was holding either a fake gun, knife or flashlight. The participant had to force their eyes open to identify the object and call it out before moving on to the final station where they reached a police vehicle, sat down and practiced calling dispatch for help.
"The only thing that I could hear was Officer Austermann telling me that I can do it," said Recruit Octavia Hearon. "That's the only voice I was hearing."
According to Austermann, OC is considered a low level of force.
"The level of pain is high, but the level of injury is very low," he said.
When reasonable, recruits are taught to use it early on in a confrontation to prevent it from escalating further.
"We want to minimize the injury potential to both the officer and the subject that we are trying to take into custody," Austermann said. "OC, in my opinion, is probably the best for that."
While everybody reacts differently to the substance, Austermann said, generally, the initial effects of the pepper spray last up to 90 minutes. Residual effects may linger for hours longer.
"The nice thing is that you know they will recover," said Mills. "But I'm also thankful we have other tools on our belt that we could use that maybe won't have such a long lasting effect."
One such tool is the Taser, a device that shoots probes which attach to a person's skin or clothing. The probes are connected to the device by wires and send an electrical charge from the device into the person, incapacitating them temporarily.
The electrical charge from a Taser interrupts the communication between a person's brain and their muscles for five seconds giving the officer time to take control of the subject.
Recruits learned how to load and unload the tool safely, and how to aim the tool before they got to practice shooting the Taser at a dummy.
One of the most important lessons recruits learn about using a Taser is to clearly announce they are firing a Taser before deploying the probes to avoid confusion. They do this by saying the word "Taser" three times.
"The taser has a very loud audible sound, a loud crack, on deployment that can sound similar to a gunshot," said Austermann.
After learning to use the Taser, it was time for the recruits to learn what the receiving end of the probes feels like.
One by one, an instructor deployed the Taser at a recruit who was supported under each arm by a classmate. The probes connected with the recruit on the backside with one probe hitting above the belt line and the other probe hitting below the belt line. The Taser sent an electric charge through the recruit for five seconds.
"If those two people weren't standing there holding my arms, I would've went down like a brick," said Recruit Trevor Green.
He, like the rest of his classmates, locked up when the Taser made contact and was lowered to the ground on his frontside by his supporting classmates.
"You can think just fine, you can reason, you have rationale, you can hear what's going on around you, you just can't move the muscles of your body, like your arms and legs," Austermann said.
It is up to an officer's discretion, within their department policy, to decide which less lethal tool is appropriate to use for each encounter, Austermann said.
Law enforcement began to use pepper spray more widely in the early 1990s. Tasers grew in popularity in the early 2000s. Before these tools were introduced, Austermann said officers were limited to a nightstick and a firearm.
"That forced the officer to go hands on a lot of the times with the subject, increasing that injury ratio or injury potential for both the subject and the police officer which is what we're looking to minimize at all costs if we can."
One of the largest tools an officer must use is their vehicle. Next, we'll learn about the training recruits go through to operate a police vehicle, from parallel parking to a pursuit through unfamiliar territory.
This is one in a series of stories you'll find only on Fox 2. For more on Fox 2's exclusive look Inside the Academy, visit www.fox2now.com/academy.