Some Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies use same flammable tear gas that led to fugitive cop death
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03/12/13 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Tuesday | Listen to this entire show:

A few weeks ago in Southern California, police who tried to arrest a former LA Police officer accused of murder burned down the house where the suspect was hiding using incendiary tear gas. Some police agencies in the Tampa Bay area are equipped with the chemical weapon. It’s used by specially trained police units to smoke out dangerous suspects during certain situations. But the consequences of an unintended fire can be deadly. We spoke to several law enforcement agencies in the area to find out if they used the weapons and whether or not agencies had policies in place to protect civilians, officers and suspects.

“We don’t want to reveal a lot of tactics that we utilize, but we are – we have to follow guidelines from the manufacturer of each product or resource that we do use and there’s recommendations.”

That’s Greg Schwemley, commander of St. Petersburg Police Department’s Special Weapons And Tactical unit, or SWAT. The department is one of four local agencies WMNF contacted that equips officers with incendiary tear gas canisters. Some officers nicknamed them burners or pyrotechnics because the chemical compound used to force suspects out of a barricaded situation is dispersed by heating it to extremely high temperatures.

“Basically those are going to be reserved for outdoor activities. If we had crowd control issues or something like that where the device would be deployed and done so in a way that, hopefully we’re not going to put it in a field of grass or something like that and they’re made so people just can’t pick them up and toss them back.”

Last month, police agencies in California fell under harsh criticism for their use of incendiary tear gas canisters during the Christopher Dorner manhunt. Dorner was suspected of killing a police officer and his daughter. He was holed up in a vacation cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains. Officers were heard on police scanners giving orders to deploy “burners”.

“Alright Steve, we’re going to go forward with the plan; with the burner.”

“Copy.”

“Like we talked about.”

“…burners deployed and we have a fire.”

“Copy. Seven burners deployed and we have a fire.”

After the dust settled, an official from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office told reporters that the fire was not set intentionally, but acknowledged it was caused by the canisters. The audio was spread all over YouTube and shared on social media sites. Last month, Amy Goodman spoke with Norm Stamper, former police chief of the Seattle Police Department.

“I think if you think about the names applied to this particular type of weaponry – pyrotechnic, incendiary, burners – those all suggest that those devices do in fact, start fires.”

Because of their tendency to catch fire, many police agencies try not to use incendiary devices indoors. Lakeland Police Department captain Rick Taylor, said his agency typically only uses those types of weapons for training.

“We use it so that our SWAT officers can be in a chemical environment, they can experience it. We also use it to test our gas mask – make sure they’re working in a controlled environment.”

When dealing with an actual emergency, Taylor said they use a non-flammable tear gas.

“We use a form of powder that gets shot out of one of our weapons and the canister punches through a wall or window and it’s released in there and that’s non-incendiary – it’s not going to catch fire. It basically expels powder out into the room that it’s deployed into. So, that’s the normal means of the way we deploy our gas.”

And according to Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Larry McKinnon, that agency hasn’t used so-called burners since the late 80s.

“After 1988 we switched to a non-incendiary device. Of course, even now into the present time, chemical munitions have evolved to the point where most of the products out there are non-flammable – even some of the OC, the pepper sprays that we utilize on our belt is even non-flammable and that’s primarily because of the Tasers that are also, could be used.”

Why? Because there are plenty of other viable options. But a St. Petersburg Police Department undercover chemical munitions specialist said there are some people who think incendiary munitions are the better way to go.

“Some people or some different companies, they believe that the dispersal is actually more effective and some of them think the burning munitions are more effective because they put out more product quicker and it’s just more of a saturation.”

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department have incendiary tear gas in their arsenals – but the deparment’s policy manuals are not specific on when and how the burners can be used. Some of the policies do specify that only trained tactical teams like SWAT can deploy them. The Lakeland Police Department’s policy even says that it has to be a supervisor who makes the call. But St. Pete Police’s Schwemley said it’s a judgment call by officers on scene. He added it’s hard to say why police in California used incendiary weapons on a wooden cabin.

“You could be talking about a time element, what type of resources they had on hand – it’d really be difficult for me to get in their heads and tell you why they made the choice they made without knowing, again, all of the details and all of the facts.”

The Tampa Police Department told WMNF they don’t have incendiary tear gas canisters, but did not respond to requests for an interview. Seven local law enforcement agencies did not respond to interview requests. Those are the Pinellas Park and Sarasota Police Departments and Sarasota, Citrus, Polk and Pasco County Sheriff’s Offices. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster was asked to comment, but declined saying he did not know enough about the weapons to have an opinion.

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