Michael Mercer, founder and CEO of F3 Defense, on Monday in the South Portland workshop where he created a mobile pepper spray deployment system. The Manufacturers Association of Maine awarded F3 Defense its Innovator of the Year award, but civil rights advocates have raised concerns about the potential misuse of the device. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A South Portland company is developing a vehicle-mounted pepper spray device with enough capacity to be used against crowds of protesters, receiving praise from the business community but raising concerns among civil rights advocates who are worried about its potential for misuse.

The company’s founder told a manufacturing industry group on Friday that the nonlethal weapon was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. He said motorists could use the device against crowds of protesters that pose a direct threat, saying it provides a less-than-lethal option for drivers responding to threats of violence from inside their vehicles.

The weapon holds 18.5 ounces of pepper spray – more than 30 times the amount in a typical handheld canister. F3 Defense has received a warm reception in Maine, getting accepted into the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs’ Top Gun business accelerator program and winning this year’s “Innovator of the Year” award from the Manufacturers Association of Maine.

Michael Mercer of F3 Defense holds up the pepper spray canister for his mobile deployment system in South Portland on Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But others are concerned that the device, which is not yet on the market, could be misused and would make the legal act of demonstrating more difficult and dangerous.

“People have a right to protest in this country,” said Zach Heiden, chief counsel at ACLU of Maine. “Civil rights demonstrators already have a problem with violence from police and counter-protesters; they don’t need the additional worry of motorists indiscriminately spraying them with pepper spray while they are fighting for their rights.”

Activist and entrepreneur Genius Black of South Portland, who produced the “Black Owned Maine” podcast and has a new podcast called “Maine’s Black Future” in the works, has participated in Black Lives Matter protests, which he called a continuation of the civil rights movement. Black said he understands that the device could be useful for people to get out of dangerous situations, but that using it against protesters would be another matter.


“If your intention is to run up close to a protest and try to break it up by spraying gas, well, now that’s an assault,” he said, adding that people often perceive a threat from protesters even when that perception is unfounded.

Michael Mercer, the company’s founder and CEO, understands how people could be concerned about the product, but said that his system is meant to give vulnerable people some advantage in a dangerous situation.

“There are laws in every state addressing the use of pepper spray in an offensive way, (which) would be considered an assault or similar offense,” he said.


The device is described on F3 Defense’s website and in media reports as a less-than-lethal option for drivers responding to threats of violence from inside their vehicles. But Mercer emphasized the product’s capability to be used against protesters in a presentation to the Maine Manufacturer’s Association on Friday.

The retired police officer and Navy veteran told the audience that he drew on his years of experience as a chemical agents specialist to develop the system in response to stories he had heard about riots and looting in the summer of 2020. Protests against police brutality and systemic racism spread across the country in response to the May 2020 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died under the knee of a white police officer in Minnesota.


Mercer said one Maine story, in particular, got his attention. He heard a woman on the radio talking about driving her three children to see Air Force One land in Bangor, when her vehicle was stopped in a rotary by protesters.

“She got surrounded by a group of people that wouldn’t let her go,” Mercer told the crowd. “There was a BLM crowd; there was an Antifa crowd. They surrounded her and held her hostage there for 13 minutes.

“Can you imagine being in a minivan with your three kids?” he continued. “You have two options: Run them over, which most people won’t do, or just pray that they would leave her alone. I came up with a third option.”

Mercer mentioned that the system also can provide protection against carjacking, which has increased during the pandemic, as well as protection for women truckers traveling alone. He said F3 Defense, whose name refers to the slogan “Freedom from Fear,” is also working with the San Francisco Police Department to get a similar system deployed on its police cruisers.

“Pepper spray is nonlethal. It’s organic. I put it on my cheeseburgers. Literally, you can eat the stuff. So it’s not gonna hurt you,” Mercer said. “When you get pepper spray in your eyes, your eyes slam shut immediately. You can’t see. They move away from you, and you’re able to drive away.”

Genius Black understands that hearing fear in a woman’s voice on the radio could prompt someone to want to come up with a solution.


“(Mercer) heard her voice and he responded to it, just like a lot of us heard George Floyd call his mother when he knew he was dying,” he said. “We all know what it’s like to hear someone who was in pain or in fear and then we decide how to act.”

However, Black said the perception of danger from protesters often comes from people who are not in danger but who disagree with the message of the protest.

Michael Mercer demonstrates how the “fin” model of F3 Defense’s mobile pepper spray deployment system works in action, using water instead of pepper spray, on Monday in South Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“The majority of people’s experiences with protesters is that they are in no way unsafe around them,” he said. “But I’m telling you, a lot of people believe that protesters are really dangerous, particularly if they’re protesting in terms of anti-racism.”

Mercer said in a phone interview after the conference that while the idea came to him as a response to the BLM protests, “it is not political at all.”

“It is about offering an alternative for anybody,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter if it’s BLM or what part of the party you’re on. It’s just about keeping people safe in their vehicles.”

When asked why he thought the woman on the radio was being threatened with violence, Mercer said, “They were going to hurt her, they were swearing and yelling at her. They were calling the children names, swearing and taking their tops off and exposing themselves.”



Heiden, the ACLU attorney, said that besides breaking up legal protests, there are other ways such a device could be misused by drivers.

“It could be used against someone who was a danger, but it could be used against someone who the driver does not like based on their message or their political view,” he said. “This seems to be a device that would indiscriminately affect anyone within range of an automobile.”

No one at Friday’s manufacturing conference raised any concerns about potential misuse or questioned the suggestion that the device be used against protesters during Mercer’s presentation or when announcing that F3 Defense had won the group’s innovator award.

The other finalist being considered for the award was Brunswick-based Salmonics, which converts aquaculture waste into biomedical products.

Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, said after the ceremony that the decision as to who would receive the award was made by the association’s nomination committee, which voted by secret ballot.


F3 Defense also has been accepted into the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs’ 15-week “Top Gun” business accelerator program. The product’s potential for misuse was not considered when accepting the company into the program, Executive Director Tom Rainey said.

“No one asked them that question at our Top Gun pitch competition,” Rainey said. “The time we had for Q&A with each of our 11 presenting companies was very limited, as each gave five-minute pitches and it was a rather long evening, even with the three-minute limit on judges’ questions after each presentation.”

Police are charged with protecting peaceful protesters. Neither Portland nor South Portland police responded to questions about whether civilians with such a device on their vehicles would make that task more difficult, or if they believe it would have a benefit in preventing crime. A spokesperson for the Maine State Police and Rick Desjardins, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, both said they couldn’t comment on the product because they had not researched it.

Brian Higgins, adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former chief of the Bergen County Police and director of public safety for Bergen County, New Jersey, said he was aware of such devices being developed. He believes they could be useful for both police and civilian use, as long as standards are put in place and enforced.

Higgins said he was caught in a dangerous crowd during the 1990 riots in Teaneck, New Jersey, after a police officer, Gary Spath, shot a Black teenager, Phillip Pannell. Several police cruisers, including Spath’s, were turned over and set on fire by protesters, but the officers were able to escape.

More recently, Higgins said, he reviewed an incident in New York City in which a police cruiser was surrounded by people who jumped on it and were starting to break the windows. The officers had no other option but to drive away, he said, which was reported in the media as officers running over peaceful crowds.


Higgins said pepper spray is a safe and effective less-than-lethal use of force, and that a car-mounted deployment device would be a “very good” option for protecting police officers in dangerous situations such as those.

“But it needs to be considered,” he said. “You need to have strict guidelines, very specific training … and strict reporting.”


Manufacturers sometimes advertise products for use in riots and for crowd dispersal even though those are not appropriate uses, Higgins said.

“What we saw during the George Floyd death protests is that some of the stuff that was used was not really designed for the way it was used, and officers didn’t train for it,” he said. “The firing of canisters with pepper spray, or rubber bullets … (led to) significant injuries and a couple of deaths.”

Higgins’ company, Group 77, provides civilian security training. He has noticed an increase in sales of non-lethal defense devices such as stun guns to the public. He said that after video circulated about a man being dragged out of his vehicle and beaten in Brooklyn in December, there was talk of allowing civilians to carry firearms in New York City.


“Imagine that, everybody would be shooting everybody,” Higgins said. “But if there is an option where you don’t have to unlock your car doors, you don’t have to be armed with a firearm, but you can disperse this crowd with the deployment of oleoresin-based aerosol, yeah, I think it’s an option worth considering.”

Genius Black agrees that the device could be helpful to people who are being threatened while alone in their vehicles and could be a useful way to diffuse escalating situations non-lethally.

“I guarantee you that there will be women, trans people, Black people, police officers of whatever race or age, who will get themselves out of dangerous situations using that innovation,” he said. “It’s a way, for instance, instead of pulling out a gun or doing something that really would hurt somebody even if you’re scared of them, or mad at them, it’s a way to not put your own self in jail if you’re in the wrong, and not to change someone’s life or their family’s life forever.”

But Black also said standards will need to be set about how and when such a device can be used. Generally, laws require the use of less-than-lethal incapacitating weapons to be carefully controlled in a manner that minimizes the risk of harming innocent bystanders.

“I think that after a couple examples through the court, people will realize, ‘Oh, shoot, I can’t just go spray people with this and lie with zero proof that my life was in danger,’ ” he said.

F3 Defense has several patents and patents pending in the U.S. and South Africa for a range of products, including a remotely deployed pepper spray fogger for storefronts and homes, and a device for RVs and off-road vehicles to protect against bears. Mercer said a Bluetooth-enabled system is currently under development. While the products are not yet available for purchase, he said, the company is in negotiations with a major reseller and expects to announce a partnership in the next month.

“Using pepper spray as a defense tool is the best option available to citizens today,” Mercer said. “This is a system that is meant for good, meant to empower people so they do not live in fear.”

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