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Whoops: Police Officer Sprays Burning Man with Pepper Spray

Whoops: Police Officer Sprays Burning Man with Pepper Spray

Screen capture from video news coverage

Andrew Scoggin, The Oregonian

January 29, 2010

PORTLAND – A Portland police officer accidentally used pepper spray instead of a fire extinguisher on a man who lit himself on fire downtown near a fur store Wednesday.

Portland Police Bureau Chief Rosie Sizer said the officer was at a stoplight at Southwest 12th Avenue and Yamhill Street when she saw a man in flames.

When the officer went to get a fire extinguisher out of the trunk of her patrol car, she accidentally grabbed a large can of pepper spray used in riot control. Sizer said the pepper spray cans are red like a fire extinguisher.

The pepper spray was water-based, not oil-based, and nonflammable. Kim Kosmas of the Fire Bureau said the spray “didn’t have any additional reaction with him already being on fire.”

“I have never heard of a situation like this,” Sizer said. “To be confronted with someone fully engulfed in flames is something that is so unexpected and so outside the norm that you respond very instinctively. And in many, many ways, her acts were heroic.”

The man who set himself afire, 26-year-old Daniel Shaull of Dodge City, Kan., died at a hospital later Wednesday. His father, Warren, said his son had psychiatric problems and was living on the streets.

Shaull recently boarded a bus to Oregon, where he had never been, and arrived in Portland about five days ago, his father said. He said Shaull was suicidal when he left.

“I had a feeling something was going to tragically happen,” Warren Shaull said.

Though Shaull set himself on fire near Nicholas Ungar Furs at 1137 S.W. Yamhill St. — the site of numerous anti-fur protests — Warren Shaull said his son’s act was not political. He said Shaull came to Portland to seek help from a religious group that ended up taking him to the Portland Rescue Mission.

“He was mentally ill,” Warren Shaull said. “He was tired of living.”

Warren Shaull was interviewed before Sizer’s news conference and could not be reached afterward for comment.

The officer, who has been on the job for fewer than 10 years, did not know she had used pepper spray until she got back to central precinct, Sizer said. Another officer found the empty can later at the scene.

“It was a mistake that she was unaware of, and a mistake that she’s heartsick about,” Sizer said.

Police spokeswoman Mary Wheat said the officer is on vacation that was planned before the incident. Police are not pursuing any disciplinary action, she said. She declined to identify the officer.

Sizer said the bureau is going to look at ways to better distinguish items carried in trunks.

When Shaull set himself on fire, a person driving by also responded immediately and grabbed a fire extinguisher from his truck. Sizer said Shaull was running away from those trying to help him. Several officers and residents were later involved, she said.

Officer used pepper spray to douse man on fire