Two thousand years ago, the Chinese threw cayenne pepper into the faces of their enemies.
Last week, 12 Howard County police officers discovered the power of that ancient weapon when they got a whiff of the department's new pepper-based defense tool: OC Spray.
Not only did it make Officer Terrance Sheppard sneeze, it made him surrender.
"There's no doubt" it will work on suspects, Officer Sheppard said Thursday as he tried to shake off the pepper's effects on a field behind the Hickory Ridge Building in Columbia. "That will make you submit real quick."
"Every time you try to open your eyes you can't," said a watery-eyed Pfc. Woody Rush. "Your throat closes right up, making it difficult to breathe."
The men were among 12 officers who learned how to use OC Spray (short for oleorosin capsicum), which contains hot cayenne pepper, grown in South America.
When sprayed onto the face, the pepper attacks the mucous membranes immediately, causing the eyes to swell and the airways to shut, Pfc. John Paparazzo, the in
structor, told the class. The physical incapacity lasts up to 30 minutes, enabling officers to subdue a violent or disobedient suspect.
The FBI found in 9,000 field tests that OC Spray, which can be sprayed as far as 15 feet, doesn't leave permanent side effects or injuries, Patrolman Paparazzo said.
The department, which spent $6,000 on the OC Spray, joins Baltimore among the first police departments in the state to use it, said Sgt. William Pollack, acting commander of the department's education and training.
Beginning late next month, all county officers will carry 3-ounce canisters of the spray on their hips. Half of the officers carry them now, Sergeant Pollack said.
OC Spray gives officers an alternative to using their hands, batons and 9mm weapons, he said.
Complaints of excessive force "should almost go to the basement because no one's going to get injured -- in theory," Sergeant Pollack said.
The OC spray works more quickly than its liquid predecessor, Mace, is more effective, more potent and works on animals, including grizzly bears, Sergeant Pollack said.
"The stuff is good because it will work in any kind of situation," said Patrolman Paparazzo.