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Doctors urge Richmond police to eliminate use of chemical irritants in wake of COVID-19: 'We are horrified'

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Posted at 4:41 PM, Jun 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-23 21:10:05-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Five doctors from Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems who treat COVID-19 patients wrote a letter to the Richmond Police Department expressing concern over the use of chemical irritants on groups of protesters in the wake of COVID-19. But Gov. Ralph Northam, who is also a physician, said that the action is "necessary" for police to "keep the peace."

Over the course of 26 days, protesters and police have clashed over demonstrations throughout the city asking for racial equity and an end to police violence. The movement in Richmond and nationwide was sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed when a Minneapolis Police Officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes while he repeatedly said "I can't breathe."

Pepper spray and tear gas have been frequently used by Richmond and Virginia State Police to disperse large groups of demonstrators at unlawful gatherings, and multiple arrests have been made throughout the weeks of protests.

According to RPD, when the decision is made to declare an unlawful assembly, repeated announcements are made by bullhorn to alert everyone it is time to leave. Police then inform demonstrators that failure to disperse will result in arrest and/or exposure to chemical agents.

Doctors who work with COVID-19 patients said they are "horrified" at the use of chemical irritants and warned that it will worsen the effects of the pandemic. In the letter, VCU doctors David Goldberg, Alan Dow, Nutan Gowda, Sarika Modi, and Georgia McIntosh said that the use of pepper spray is "antithetical to the public health guidance for avoiding COVID-19," and urged police to eliminate the use of chemical irritants.

The letter describes two parallel pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism, the latter of which "has led to Black Americans having greater morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 and many other health conditions."

In protest situations, social-distancing is not possible which exacerbates the importance of mask-wearing, according to the doctors. But pepper spray and tear gas cause de-masking, coughing, and heavy breathing, and can affect "all nearby parties including non-violent protesters, media, bystanders, and other law enforcement officers."

On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam, also a physician, was asked if the use of tear gas and pepper spray during a pandemic concerned him, and questioned as to if he would ask law enforcement officers not to use them.

Northam responded that while he doesn't like seeing the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, he would not direct police on how to do their work.

"As you saw last night in Richmond, an unlawful assembly was called a couple of times, people refused to leave, and so when people break the law we can't condone that," Northam said, referring to a sit-in conducted by protesters outside of City Hall that was declared an unlawful assembly. 12 arrests were made throughout the evening.

"In order to keep the peace, police are going to need to take the action that's necessary," Northam said.

CBS 6 has reached out to Richmond Police and Virginia State Police for comment on the letter.

The full letter is below:

Dear Richmond Police Department,

We are currently facing two pandemics. One, of course, is COVID-19. The second is systemic racism, which has been around much longer than COVID-19, and has led to Black Americans having greater morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 and many other health conditions. As physicians are actively treating patients with COVID-19, we urge you to join us to ensure the response to one pandemic does not worsen the effects of the other pandemic. We ask you to eliminate the use of pepper spray and other chemical irritants.

History has shown that meaningful lasting change has been brought about by protests. As you know, the best practices to protect against COVID-19 are mask-wearing and social distancing. Unfortunately, protesting makes social distancing impossible, and protesters must rely solely on wearing masks.

Because of this, we are horrified to see the use of pepper spray and other chemical irritants against protesters. Pepper spray causes demasking, coughing, and heavy breathing. The use of pepper spray is antithetical to the public health guidance for avoiding COVID-19. Moreover, the use of pepper spray indiscriminately affects all nearby parties, including non-violent protesters, media, bystanders, and other law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement should adhere to clear guidelines when using pepper spray to maintain the welfare of all people. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be only be used as a last resort and with sufficient warning to all individuals present.

David Goldberg, MD
Alan Dow, MD
Nutan Gowda, MD
Sarika Modi, MD
Georgia McIntosh, MD