About . . . . Classes . . . . Books . . . . Vita . . . . Blog. . . . Podcast

by Peter Moskos

November 19, 2011

Dumb-ass Training and the U.C. Davis Pepper Spray Incident:

I'm in Dublin. I love Ireland (though England was great, too).

I received an email from the Washington Monthly (you may remember them as one of the first magazines to publish a Flogging piece) asking my opinion about the UC Davis pepper-spray incident. I hadn't heard of it. But ignorance is not bliss.

So now I've watched the video. I wasn't there, but here are my thoughts (best read at the Washington Monthly):
This UC Davis pepper-spray incident from yesterday, in which campus police sprayed a group of protesting “Occupy” students who were sitting on the ground, was just brought to my attention. I don’t know all the facts, but as a former cop-turned-academic, there’s one thing I can say.

In the police academy, I was taught to pepper-spray people for non-compliance. Ie: “Put your hands behind your back or I’ll… mace you.” It’s crazy. Of course we didn’t do it this way, the way were taught. Baltimore police officers are too smart to start urban race riots based on some dumb-ass training. So what did we do to gain compliance? We grabbed people. Hands on. Like real police. And we were good at it.

Some people, perhaps those who design training programs, think policing should be a hands-off job. It can’t be and shouldn’t be. And trying to make policing too hands-off means people get Tased and maced for non-compliance. It’s not right. But this is the way many police are trained. That’s a shame. (Mind you, I have no problem using such less-lethal weapons on actual physical threats, but peaceful non-compliance is different.)

When police need to remove protesters—whether that’s even the case here I don’t know—it needs to be crystal clear who gives the order, be it the president of the university or the ranking officer on scene. Officers on the scene shouldn’t be thrown under the bus because their superiors gave stupid (albeit lawful) orders. Accountability matters.

And if police need to remove these students, then the police can go in four officers to one protester and remove them. Lift them up and take them away. Maybe you need one or two more officers with a threatening baton to keep others from getting involved. It really can be that simple.

People don’t hate the police for fighting off aggressors or arresting law breakers. They do hate police for causing pain—be it by dog, fire house, Taser, or mace—to those who passively resist. And that’s what happened yesterday at U.C. Davis.


Anonymous said...

The context of this matters though. The people pepper sprayed surrounded the cops to prevent them from leaving with the people who had been arrested while the tents were being dismantled. If you surround the police with the intent of not letting them leave with their A/P's and they tell you that you need to move or you will get OC'd, don't be too surprised when it happens.

PCM said...

The cops don't look overly concerned with being "surrounded." I see them casually walking around. And if they were surrounded, why are they macing people sitting down in the center? If that was the real issue, they should be macing the people surrounding them and breaking the line to escape.

Anonymous said...

The human barrier was to prevent them carrying out the A/P's. Not an immediate threat or anything but they're clearly going to have to clear a path to leave. I tend to agree with you that too many cops have moved away from going hands on and I think I would have also just used several guys to pry them apart. But I also think the decision to use OC isn't nuts here. To me it looks like they decide to use the OC after realizing it's going to be a lot of physical force to clear that path.


I've seen enough A/P's and cops both get hurt tussling that I understand why they'd choose to minimize that aspect. Hurting a shoulder or throwing your back out sucks for either party. I rolled the hell out of my ankle during a DT training a couple years back and it wasn't right for like 5 weeks. I'd rather get OC'd than do that again.

Laurel L. Russwurm said...

Peaceful protest is legally protected.

The University chancellor was not doing her job. If she can't use words to get the protesters to move - these are students who attend this school - students who have paid for the right to be on that campus - she should not be in that job. If it was that important to her, threaten to expell them. But calling the cops? That is a clear sign of incompetance.

And the police force sent in police to remove students. Bad call. Tell me, though, what happens when cops go out on a domestic call? Maybe the couple has an argument. Do the police roll in and pepper spray the one who didn't call? Or do they use their brains and try to diffuse the situation.

Anonymous said...

Laurel - at least one of the protesters, according to an article from a local paper, graduated in June. So these were not all students. Further, the university waived its ban on setting up encampments for the night and told the protesters, at 9 a.m., that they had until 3 to evacuate. They were afraid that if they didn't force evacuation, they - the school - would have a near-permanent encampment on their property.

I'm not sure the police behaved properly but I don't know what they should have done. I do know that the protesters were anything but peaceful though and they seemed to go out of their way - setting up encampments, ignoring orders to remove them, locking arms to block police, chanting - to provoke cops in a way that didn't seem to be furthering a political message.

Anonymous said...

Laurel, comparing a DV situation to a protest shows you have no idea what you are talking about. If the protesters aren't going to move and they need to be moved thats when your solution is sadly going be a lose-lose but its part of the job. Go hands on? Sure, then all people see on YouTube is a giant fight. Pepper Spray? Sure, then you have this mess. It's a lose-lose for the police but its part of the job (hence why so many people do not like us because many outcomes we provide are ones that they don't like).

PCM said...

But the police did go hands on before the pepper spray (check on the 45 minute version) They did it well and it didn't start a riot. Only later did they pepper spray. And perhaps because they listened to the crowd chanting "you can't arrest us all." The crowd was right. So they busted out the OC spray. I'm still not certain what the purpose was. Obviously there was one because it was a calculated decision. But what purpose did it serve?

Frankly, I'd prefer to arrest somebody who hasn't been maced.

CPM said...

Peter, After reading this post, you should be teaching risk managment too. Check out www.LLRMI.com. I have been to some training put on by this company. The instructor, a retired officer from RI, now attorney would agree with you on this one. So do I.

Adam B. said...

Less circulated versions of the video show that the cops were about 3/4 surrounded by protestors when the others sat down, linked arms, and completely closed them in. Had the cops bunched together and just marched through the standing crowd, I doubt they'd have encountered any resistance. Instead, they pepper sprayed the protestors who decided to antagonize (not threaten) them.

What I found perplexing was the use of a pepper FOGGER. Our academy instructors told us that thing was to be sprayed over top of big unruly crowds (not directly into the faces of seated, non-threatening protestors). Would the public's reaction have been different if it had been one quick line of spray? That, I would argue, would have been defensible, even if not advisable. So here's my big pitch:

If pepper spray isn't a good option for cops in a situation like this, then it almost never is. Pepper spray is an irritant. It hurts people but rarely injures them, and it does not render them unable to function. See, e.g., this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFS2c2Bw3Hg. That’s why calls to limit the application of pepper spray to “serious physical threats” are misguided. A person trying to beat me up or stab me will keep trying to do the same thing after being sprayed; he’ll just be half-blind and a lot angrier. In a true fight, other devices like tasers and batons (and more cops!) are preferable. Pepper spray seems to make the most sense in cases where somebody refuses to comply with orders, and though not looking for a fight, might give you one if you put your hands on them. Given that it wasn’t clear how much the protestors would have fought/resisted if the cops had tried to pry them apart, the spray (not the fogger!) seems like it was a reasonable option.

Apart from "I'm not going anywhere without a fight" scenarios, I struggle to think of when pepper spray is truly useful. Rabid dogs? A halfhearted dimwit holding a knife at his side and refusing to put it down? None of this is to say non-compliance is a good reason to use pepper spray, just that there are few better ones.