TAMPA, Fla. — Amid the wave of recent protests, there have been calls to ban police from the use of tear gas, which was banned from war practices in the 1990s. The I-Team found that local law enforcement agencies spend thousands of tax dollars on chemical irritants like tear gas.
Earlier this month, Tampa Police Department was at the center of this controversy. University of South Florida senior May Abellard was on the front lines of a protest meant to go from downtown to the onramp of I-275.
Emadi Okwuosa led the large crowd with a bullhorn in hand to stop there for eight minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd.
Tampa Police released aerial video of the incident, showing officers on bikes rush to the front of the crowd to form a barricade. Officers arrested a teen girl and many protesters stopped to film the incident, including Abellard.
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“I knew it was about to be a mess, so I started to brace myself,” she said.
Mey captured a video of an officer spraying her directly in the face with some type of chemical irritant. Okwuosa, who was arrested soon after and charged with inciting a riot, says he just caught the remnants left in the air.
“It felt like my whole body was on fire,” Abellard said.
“It’s like fire,” Okwuosa said. "It feels like just straight burning from all over.”
What was supposed to be a short time of stinging and burning, went for much longer.
“I remember I washed my hands in the morning after I had already taken a shower and I touched my face and as soon as I did that, I was burning again,” he said.
“I even had to cut out my braids and remove them. I couldn't even wash my own hair,” Abellard said. “I had two individuals helping me wash my hair where they had gloves on because if they touched my hair, they would start burning, too.”
“For me, I think that's inhumane, that I should have to burn for that long,” she said.
That June protest was one of the many around the nation sparking debate on police using tear gas.
In the 1990s, the Geneva Convention banned chemical weapons, including riot control agents like tear gas from war. But it didn't prevent domestic law enforcement from using them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines tear gas as any chemical compound that cause the rapid onset of tears, coughing and wheezing.
“Tear gas is kind of an all-encompassing title,” Law professor Jeff Swartz said.
Swartz specializes in criminal law and procedure at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School in Riverview.
When it comes to use of force, he says officers are often allowed to use their own discretion, but tear gas should only be used as a last resort.
“That type of crowd dispersal effort really shouldn’t be used against peaceful protesters until it is absolutely and totally necessary,” Swartz said.
Our I-Team wanted to know which local law enforcement agencies use tear gas and how much of your tax dollars are being spent on these types of chemical irritants.
I-Team investigator Jasmine Styles reached out to 20 law enforcement agencies across the Tampa Bay area to ask how much they spent on tear gas.
Since last July, the following agencies spent more than $140,000 on tear gas. Most reported buying pepper spray.
- Polk County Sheriff’s Office
- Pasco County Sheriff’s Office
- Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office
- Manatee County Sheriff’s Office
- Clearwater Police Department
- Highlands County Sheriff’s Office
- Zephyrhills Police Department
- Bartow Police Department
- Largo Police Department
The Manatee and Sarasota sheriff's offices, as well as the Largo Police Department also say they’ve purchased CS gas, a more potent chemical compound.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who leads one of the biggest agencies in the Tampa Bay area, refuses to tell the public what kind of tear gas his department buys.
“If I didn’t have any violence I would probably be a lot more open about it right now,” Chief Dugan said.
TPD told the I-Team it has $15,000 earmarked for crowd control training and tear gas in the current budget and has already spent about half. The department wouldn’t tell taxpayers the total amount spent because giving that exact number would reveal protected police tactics.
“I think it’s important we be transparent as an agency,” Chief Dugan said. “But when it comes to safety of innocent people and police officers we have to be very guarded on what we're willing to give out.
Tampa Police wasn’t the only agency refusing to tell taxpayers how much it spent. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office sent us these receipts of the chemical irritants they bought in the past year.
Although they’re heavily redacted, the receipts show the SCSO bought smoke grenades and pepper spray.
The top three agencies that racked up the biggest bills would only tell us how much they spent, but not what they bought.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office spent $61,545.50 on tear gas. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported spending $50,636.99, and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office spent $15,566.37.
“We're feeding money into a system that is fueling violence and fueling the rhetoric for confrontation,” Okuwosa said. “There's a lot more nonviolent interactions than there are violent interactions, but they're so suited for violent interactions.”
Protesters like Okwuosa and Abellard say they don’t plan to stop marching anytime soon.
“Speaking to my mom, she's like, ‘Are you still going to go back out there after being maced so heavily and going through that experience,' and the answer is yes,” Abellard said. “We still continued to march, we’re in pain, but that pain it's not as much as the pain we feel when black lives are taken too soon.”