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Doctors Urge Richmond Police To Stop Pepper Spraying, Gassing

Screenshot of police tear gassing people
Police march through clouds of chemical gas in this screenshot of a video of an attack on peaceful protesters at the Lee statue earlier this month. (Video: Wendy Goodman Humble/VPM News)

Dr. David Goldberg works in internal medicine at VCU Health, and sees the impacts of the coronavirus first hand. He said he and his colleagues were alarmed after seeing videos of police spraying chemical irritants on protesters. 

“You’re literally asking for a situation where COVID-19 could spread,” said Goldberg.

That’s because pepper spray and tear gas can lead to coughing, heavy breathing and people taking off their masks. 

“When these people are pepper sprayed, they start to cough, their eyes swell,” Goldberg said.

Five doctors, including Goldberg, sent a letter Tuesday to Richmond Police, highlighting that the city is facing two pandemics -- COVID-19 and systemic racism. Goldberg says they had to do something.

“Where is our lane? How can we help make a difference in the Black community and try to fight systemic racism,” Goldberg asked rhetorically.

Goldberg said he’s nervous about what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks after the protests end. He's working with colleagues to set up free COVID-19 testing sites for those who may have been exposed at the protests. 

Mike Jones, a member of Richmond City Council, asked Mayor Levar Stoney to commit to banning chemical reagents from being used on protesters. Stoney said he will defer to the police department, but says they should be used as a last resort.

The five doctors are part of the VCU Health System, but stressed the letter sent does not represent the views of their employer.

VPM obtained  a copy of their letter:

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


Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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