A US Park Police spokesperson said in an interview it was a “mistake” to insist in a statement on Tuesday that it didn’t use tear gas the day before in Lafayette Square to disperse a crowd ahead of President Trump’s photo op, explicitly noting that pepper balls shot by officials irritate the eyes and cause tears.
“The point is we admitted to using what we used,” Sgt. Eduardo Delgado said. “I think the term ‘tear gas’ doesn’t even matter anymore. It was a mistake on our part for using ‘tear gas’ because we just assumed people would think CS or CN,” two common forms of tear gas.
Delgado’s call to me Friday was an attempt to clear up a statement the Park Police released Tuesday, the day after reporters on the scene outside the White House said officers used tear gas on peaceful protesters. The statement from acting Chief Gregory Monahan said that no tear gas was used by any federal force present, but that the Park Police itself “employed smoke canisters and pepper balls.”
“I’m not going to say that pepper balls don’t irritate you,” Delgado said, noting they contain capsicum, an irritant derived from pepper plants. “I’m not saying it’s not a tear gas, but I’m just saying we use a pepper ball that shoots a powder.”
The response became a national controversy in itself, with experts in policing tactics calling the distinction semantic. “Tear gas” is a broad term, often defined as a synthetic chemical irritant. Pepper spray is a naturally derived chemical irritant that causes many effects similar to that of common types of tear gas, including temporary blindness and a burning sensation in the nose.
On Friday, Delgado maintained their original statement was accurate as it relates to the Park Police: “no tear gas was used by USPP officers.” US Park Police used only those non-lethal weapons as law enforcement forcibly pushed peaceful protesters away from the White House. In fact, he said — as he has before — that his agency doesn’t carry tear gases known as CN, even though canisters of all of them were found on the scene. As for CS, the agency doesn’t carry the specific type found on the Square, but it does carry CS in general.
Delgado couldn’t comment on whether or not other federal agencies, like the Secret Service, used tear gas at the protest. All agencies All law enforcement agencies involved in the violent dispersal, though, have denied launching tear gas.
One reason the Park Police felt it was right to say tear gas wasn’t used in its Tuesday statement, per Delgado, is because they were referring solely to the employment of CN and CS gases, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels the “most common” forms of tear gases. The CDC, which also uses the term “riot control agent” for tear gases, does say that “pepper spray” is considered a “riot control agent.”
Anna Feigenbaum, author of the book Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today, told Vox’s Jen Kirby on Wednesday that “You can have ‘gases’ in different forms. It can be liquid, it can be powder.”
“It was kind of a fault on our part just not saying in the first place ‘we did not use CN or CS, we used smoke and pepper balls,’ and that would’ve made it a moot point,” Delgado said. Some people claim we purposefully tried to mislead by “saying we didn’t use tear gas, we used pepper balls. … That was not our intention.”
The goal was to be “transparent” about what the Park Police used, he continued. “Everybody went on a tangent saying ‘Well, isn’t a pepper ball tear gas?’ And it’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m just telling you what we used and what we didn’t use.”
“If we had shot CS or CN, every [Park Police] officer there would’ve had a gas mask on,” said Delgado, who was present the forced dispersal on Monday. “But what you saw were very few officers with gas masks walking through the quote-unquote tear gas with no effects. Now that would be impossible if that was CS or CN and you had no protection.”
“I’ve been through the stuff. You would see officers and civilians crawling, everything out of their sinuses pouring out onto their shirts and onto the ground, people helping each other walk because you can’t see,” Delgado noted.
Altogether, Delgado — on behalf of the US Park Police — conceded the agency displayed an error in judgment with its emphatic Monday statement that led the Trump campaign to demand retractions from reporters, including me.
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