Bear spray has long been a favourite weapon of Prince Albert’s gangs, but criminal use of the stinging chemical is becoming significantly less frequent.
According to information provided by the Prince Albert Police, bear spray was used in 117 incidents in 2015, leading to just two criminal charges. Last year the number of incidents dropped to 83 and police were able to lay 13 charges. So far in 2017 there have been 44 incidents, which leaves the city on track to see its third consecutive drop in criminal bear spray use.
Jason Stonechild, inspector in charge of operations for the Prince Albert Police Service, said the spray is almost entirely unregulated, unlike the pepper spray carried by police. Stonechild said he would not want to see new laws restricting the sale of bear spray because it has a legal and legitimate purpose, but noted city police have taken steps to keep the chemical out of the hands of criminals.
“There are a few local businesses in Prince Albert that recognized that bear spray was affecting our community,” Stonechild said. “They worked with the police service and a couple have discontinued carrying such items.”
Other local businesses have stopped keeping the spray in stock and will order it upon request, Stonechild said, while other retailers keep it in secure displays or out of sight to reduce opportunistic thefts.
paNOW purchased a 225-gram can of Sabre Wild Max Bear Attack Deterrent from a Prince Albert retailer for $61.04. The spray was not displayed to the public, but two varieties were available upon request after presenting ID and filling out a form to allow authorities to track the purchase by serial number.
Bear spray is favoured by criminals and gang members because it is a very intimidating weapon, Stonechild said. Prince Albert criminals typically menace their victims with the spray, he said, and often use it if their demands are not met. The intimidation associated with the chemical is also likely the reason so few charges have resulted from the large number of incidents, he added, as victims of gang violence are often too fearful to give evidence as witnesses.
Using bear spray as a weapon would likely result in serious charges such as assault with a weapon or assault causing bodily harm, Stonechild said.
Bear spray and police OC spray (commonly referred to as pepper spray) contain the same active ingredient, Stonechild said, which is a highly-concentrated chemical derived from common pepper plants. Police pepper spray comes out of the can as a stream while bear spray uses a mist or cone to cover a wide area, he said, but the chemical concentration and its effects on human beings are largely identical (the spray purchased by paNOW had an active ingredient concentration of 1.84 per cent, which is slightly lower than the two per cent concentration used by police).
“Like police OC spray, it’s an irritant. What that means is it causes discomfort. It’ll cause skin irritation and your skin will display redness, swelling and you’ll feel pain. It will create breathing difficulty for most people,” he said. “It also will irritate one’s eyes to the point where it will force them to shut.”
Stonechild said he has personally been pepper sprayed several times, both on the job and as part of his police training. All officers go through the ordeal in training for two reasons. They must be able to work through the pain if they are accidentally exposed, he said, and they also need to know the effects of pepper spray before they use it on the job.
Stonechild said exposure to pepper spray is unpleasant and the effects lasted for some time, but joked the pepper spray was not as bad as being hit with a Taser.
Conservation officers have warned that the Prince Albert region is home to black bears and recommend carrying bear spray whenever venturing into bear country, but Stonechild said he doesn’t know of any cases where a civilian used bear spray to defend themselves against an animal.
“We have had officers use it for protection against aggressive dogs in the past,” he said.
Though criminal bear spray use is on the decline in Prince Albert, Stonechild said it is still common enough to be a concern for both the public and the police. The spray was very rarely used by criminals as recently as 10 years ago, he noted, and today incidents still occur fairly regularly. In recent weeks a downtown business was sprayed by would-be thieves after they tried and failed to break in, and six people were sprayed during a home invasion on River St. E.
“It is out there on the street,” he said. “It’s something that our officers and the public should always be aware of.”
On Twitter: @TMacPhersonNews
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