The UC Davis Pepper Spray incident: police brutality or lawful escalation of force?

Is this police brutality? Or lawful escalation of force?
Much hay has been made on the Internet over this past weekend following the now-infamous pepper-spray incident between Occupy protesters and police on the UC Davis campus. It didn't take long for the gratuitous (and sometimes humorous) Photoshops mocking what was assumed to be police brutality.
C'mon, really?
But did the police engage in police brutality by pepper-spraying these “peaceful” protesters? Rather than watching the popular video which starts when the pepper spraying begins, let's take a look at the longer video which shows the events leading up to that point.

A large group of protesters had gathered on the quad and formed a ring around police officers.
  • 0:58 — An officer walks up to the line of students who are blocking the sidewalk with their arms linked and asks one of them to move. The student refuses. And they they all laugh at the officer and then continue chanting, “Our university!” and “Power of the students!”
  • Several officers can be seen conversing on their radios (presumably communicating with headquarters or a commanding officer).
  • 4:00 — The officer informs the protesters that if they do not move, they will be shot with pepper spray. Again, the students refuse to move and instead chant, “Don't shoot students!”
  • 5:00 — Officers can be seen retrieving pepper spray canisters from their belts and shaking them up. Still no movement from the ring of students surrounding the officers.
  • 5:30 — Standing students begin to scream to their seated fellows to “Protect your eyes!” But nobody moves. In fact, several standing students hand cloths to the seated resisters so that they can cover their faces. Everyone here knows what is about to happen, and they're bracing for it. But not moving.
  • 6:20 — Officers on the outside of the ring of students tell them to move out of the way and off the sidewalk. The seated students still won't budge.
  • 6:36 — One officer from inside the ring steps over the line of students, turns and begins to spray the seated students with pepper spray.
  • 7:00 — The seated students begin to feel the effects of the pepper spray and unlink their arms. At that point, officers move in and begin to arrest them.
A cursory search for "legal escalation of force” brings up an article from entitled, “Force Continuums: Three Questions.”
The actual law on the degree of allowable force is quite broad and very much in favor of officers. Legal standards…take numerous factors into account that continuums do not. For example, many continuums depict only the relationship between the subject's current behavior ("actively resisting," for example) and the officer's force response.
…The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in, too. Its Civil Rights Division urges agencies adopt a progressive force con­tinuum and train all officers in it. Consent de­crees and technical letters of assistance some­times require agencies to do so. According to the Department of Justice, a force continuum should include all types of force used by an agency, including firearms, pepper spray, batons, and canines.
The students who refused a legal order from law enforcement to unblock the sidewalk were actively resisting a lawful order to disperse. The University of California’s Universitywide Police Policies and Administrative Procedures has this to say about the use of pepper spray:
“Chemical agents are weapons used to minimize the potential for injury to officers, offenders, or other persons. They should only be used in situations where such force reasonably appears justified and necessary.”
If students are actively resisting a lawful order from law enforcement, what is the officer to do? If a student chooses to take a peaceful and lawful protest and escalate it by refusing a lawful order, the protest may indeed be peaceful but it has ceased to be lawful. According to the UC Davis’ Student Responsibilities and Conduct Standards:
102.16 Failure to Comply with Directions of Official, or Resisting or Obstructing Official. Failure to identify oneself to, or comply with the directions of, a University official or other public official acting in the performance of his/her duties while on University property or at official University functions; or resisting or obstructing such officials in the performance of or the attempt to perform their duties.
Whether the officers were acting in a “reasonable” manner is a matter that will now likely be decided in court. According to the University's policies, it appears that the police were acting within their guidelines while the students were violating theirs (it also appears that by refusing to unblock the sidewalk, the students may have been in violation of 102.13 Obstruction or Disruption and 102.15 Disturbing the Peace).

Sorry, no sympathy here.
Cross-posted at Full Metal Patriot


  1. I can support their right to protest, but what have they proven or accomplished? Maybe I don't have all the facts but from my vantage point... Pointless!

  2. Agreed. As someone who has attended many Tea Party rallies, I support their right to protest even though I disagree with their goals. But my support for them ends when they choose to disobey lawful orders from police officers.

  3. I'm torn, personally. On the one hand, I understand the escalation of force to enforce the law, especially when the person(s) defying the police are actively resisting lawful orders, and posing a danger to themselves or others. On the other hand, we seem to live in an age where the police can do whatever they want, can and do jail anyone who tries to expose any misconduct, regularly abuse their power, and have no respect for the people they nominally serve. This action seems to match both perceptions.

    Was using chemical weaponry really the right approach to dealing with protesters who refused to surrender their right to peaceably assemble when the demand was made by the state? What about if the state demands people surrender their right to remain silent; is escalation to torture acceptable? If the police feel you might be a danger to exposing their misconduct, can they lawfully destroy your property and/or incarcerate you? Can the state search you without cause, and/or expose you to arbitrary amounts of radiation in addition, in or around any public transit area, and incarcerate and fine you if you fail to comply? Is there anything in here which might generate sympathy for the people opposing the state?

  4. Good points Nick. In this instance, I believe the state over-reacted.

  5. Oh PLEASE, other Nick. Torn?

    Clearing people out of an area they have no right to occupy is not nearly the same as forcing someone to incriminate themselves.

    If you'll note carefully, the people who were NOT blocking the sidewalk didn't get sprayed.

    The last time I checked, I have a right to walk down sidewalks without having other people intentionally block my path.

    Don't dignify their temper tantrum by calling it a "protest." They aren't protesting ANYTHING. They are "occupying" space they have no legal right to occupy.

    Police are not above the law. There are many causes of action that can be brought in court, and states have generally waived sovereign immunity for infractions by law enforcement officers in particular.

    There will likely be a lawsuit, and it will likely fail because the police followed the proper procedures.

  6. I must say I agree with the opinion of the 1st Nick here... How many videos have we seen of Police objecting to being videoed? These students were stupid, but was the pepper spray the only solution here? Did these officers skip a step?
    Another thing that comes to mind here is he "patriot act"... Dare we ask 'what's next'?!
    I am in support of our laws and officers that enforce them, but very often they don't seem to know where the line is between criminal activity and reasonable mistake...

  7. I like people, so it pains me to see anyone harmed. Hell, I felt sorry for sorry old Saddam Hussein when I watched him being hanged.

    For me, it always comes back to this question, "What is the alternative?" Dogs? Fire hoses? Surrender to any outlaw group large enough to make a stink for the sake of its own self satisfaction? Machine guns? There is an answer, I suppose, but what is it? It involves force precisely because force is what the "protesters" were using.

    Spraying people in the face with painful spices is a bad thing, but what is better? I know what's worse.

  8. Do you know how cops get trained with pepper spray? By getting pepper sprayed.

    The protesters ignored repeated orders to move. Instead, they locked arms to make removing them more difficult. They were warned they would get sprayed. So they covered their faces.

    The cops warned them again, by showing the can and shaking it as a demonstration. The officer gave another warning just after he stepped over the crowd. He sprayed one guy, and the others had a last clear chance to avoid being sprayed, but they stayed. He sprayed down the line, and it worked. As they rubbed their eyes, their arms came unlocked and they were arrested.

    And from the diffidence and the video, it was plain to me they WANTED to get sprayed so they could make a case out of it.

    I see nothing but a bunch of stinking, law breaking idiots who occupied public space and resisted lawful arrest. They deserved worse than what they got.

    And note that no one who was not blocking the sidewalk got sprayed. This wasn't about breaking up a demonstration. It was about clearing a public path of debris.

  9. Chuck likes people? That's pretty funny.

    What was the alternative? How about letting them stay there? This is just an excuse for the police state to remind us that they'll decide when and where we actually have rights.

  10. This is just an excuse for the police state...

    You've never seen a police state. In a police state, these protesters would be taken away and never seen again. Or, they would be machinegunned to death where they sat.

    Spare us the melodrama. The Tea Party had their chance to assemble and speak, and nobody got raped or pepper sprayed.

    OWS has been assembling and speaking and destroying things continuously for months, reducing whatever message they had to mere animal noises. And yet the only thing the police have done is break up camp sites and allow the protesters back the next day.

    And here I thought it was the Left that was woefully out of touch with reality.

  11. "You've never seen a police state."
    And we don't want to either!
    I got the impression that what Angela is saying is we have to draw the line somewhere... Before it becomes a "police state"!


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