Police officers sprayed with OC gas on protesters

Police sprayed protesters at the environmental movement Elokapina with OC gas in October 2020.

Police officers sprayed with OC gas on protesters
Police sprayed protesters with OC gas on October 3, 2020 on Kaisaniemenkatu in Helsinki. Image: Elokapina, GIF animation: Silja Viitala / Yle

Seven police officers have been charged with police activities during the Elokapina demonstration in Helsinki in the second autumn. On October 3, 2020, police used OC gas to protest traffic on Kaisaniemenkatu.

The charges brought by Deputy Prosecutor General Jukka Rappe concern suspected breaches of duty and assault in connection with the transfer of protest and the use of force.

A number of protesters cut off traffic on Kaisaniemenkatu while sitting in the middle of the road. Police first tried to clear up the situation in other ways but eventually sprayed the protesters with OC gas, a pepper spray.

The Attorney General began a preliminary investigation into the events in mid-October 2020. There are 16 interested parties in the case.

Prosecutor: The demonstration did not cause undue inconvenience

In a demonstration situation, the police operated in a so-called situation organization, which includes police officers at different levels of the hierarchy. Depending on the level of the hierarchy, police officers have slightly different roles and responsibilities.

The charges relate to breaches of duty in different matters, depending on the role played by each of the accused in the situation. According to Rappe, there are police officers from different levels of the hierarchy charged. It does not specify at this stage what each police officer is being charged with.

- This hierarchy of the situation organization and the related responsibilities had to be clarified quite thoroughly. It was the hardest phase of the prosecution, Rappe says.

The subject of the criminal justice assessment has been the right to protest in relation to the police's obligation to intervene in a situation causing unreasonable harm.

- From the point of view of civil service, it is a question that at a certain level in that organization it was considered that the demonstration should be intervened and at another level, an order to that effect was implemented, Rappe explains.

Police used OC gas against protesters on Kaisaniemenkatu on October 3, 2020. Photo: Reader's photo

Police used OC gas against protesters on Kaisaniemenkatu on October 3, 2020. Photo: Reader's photo

Police used OC gas against protesters on Kaisaniemenkatu on October 3, 2020. Photo: Reader's photo

According to Rappe, the demonstration basically blocks a street or some public space, which causes harm to the normal use of the space. However, it should not be interfered with for the protection of the special law of the demonstration, unless the harm is unreasonable.

The assessment of the unreasonableness of harm is situation-specific and case-by-case. According to Rappe, the police were not obliged to intervene in the demonstration on Kaisaniemenkatu.

- My opinion is that the action was so short-lived that in any case the unreasonableness was not yet fulfilled. The case is one that will ultimately have to be assessed by the court.

He believes that the right to demonstrate must be respected.

- Yes, the rule of law must endure the fact that a couple of lanes on Kaisaniemenkatu will be closed for a moment.

Prosecutor: Pepper spray should not have been used

According to the deputy public prosecutor, the police should not have used OC gas on the protesters sitting on Kaisaniemenkatu. Allegations of assault concern police officers who sprayed gas on protesters.

- Even if the police had the right to intervene in the demonstration, the use of such a hard force would not have been allowed. If it has happened that the authority has been exceeded here, then the act may meet the criteria for assault, Rappe states.

According to him, the use of police force is subject to a requirement of defense under the law. The means of force must be proportionate and defensible in relation to the danger or threat to which it is counteracted.

- It was just a matter of the protesters sitting on the street and being completely passive without causing any immediate danger or threat to anyone, Rappe says.

Police used OC gas as a booster for their orders, which Rappe thinks is questionable.

- That is one of the reasons that the charge has now been brought.

OC gas causes stinging and a strong burning sensation in the target. It also impairs vision for a while. The main active ingredient in OC spray is capsaicin, which is found in the hottest chilies and peppers.

- Those who have handled them carelessly in the kitchen know that the effect can be strong even in that situation, not to mention the fact that there is a special spray with such an active ingredient, Rappe says.

According to the police, the action was orthodox

The Police Board submitted its own report on the situation to the Ministry of the Interior in October 2020. According to the Police Board, the actions of the Helsinki Police in the demonstration were orthodox in terms of the police's powers.

According to the police, it had been agreed with the protesters of the Elokapina movement that the Emergency Brake demonstration would run from the Railway Station via Kaisaniemi to Hakaniemi. Contrary to the agreement, some of the protesters moved to Kaisaniemenkatu in front of the cars.

According to a report by the Helsinki Police Department, the police tried to remove people from the street several times before using the spray with advice, orders, and exhortations. Police carried them off the driveway, but some returned to sit there.

According to the Helsinki police, OC gas could be used specifically for those who did not obey the police orders and were clearly warned before using the gas.

Lasse Aapio, the police chief of the Helsinki Police Department, admitted at the time that the police must be better prepared for similar situations. However, police who sprayed protesters with OC gas were allowed to continue in their duties.

The charges are being heard in the Helsinki District Court. The date of processing has not yet been decided.