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by Peter Moskos

December 5, 2011

More on UC Davis Pepper Spray

You can watch the 45 minute version here. This may not be the definitive version, but if you care about this issue, you owe it to yourself to at least take 45 minutes from your busy life and watch a version of the whole thing.

Some have said the cops are surrounded. That is after-the-fact rationalization (at best). Perhaps it was true in a technical sense, though I’m not even certain of that. The police seemed to be able to walk freely over the students. The police were certainly not acting as if there were surrounded; they made no effort, even after macing some of the students, of breaking out. I do not believe that police used force because of any perceived threat to their physical safety. And if there was a threat (I wasn't there), it wasn't coming from the people who were maced.

If you think police acted out of necessity here -- as opposed to legal, justified, or even acceptable behavior -- if you real believe it was tactically necessary for the safety of the officers to mace the people sitting down, you probably can’t ever conceive of a situation where police did the wrong thing. That’s your right, but... well... you've got nothing to add to any talk of bettering police.

Here’s my take:

Except for the use of mace, it all seemed to be handled pretty well. Seriously -- and I know it’s a bit like saying, “other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?” -- most police officers and most protesters deserve a star for staying cool in a potentially hot situation. This includes the initial police arrests.

Now whether the students needed to be dispersed and/or arrested is an issue I’m going to pass over because it’s not relevant to analyzing the behavior of the officers on scene following lawful orders. There were no students being clubbed. There were no bottles lobbed at police. There was no vindictive pepper-spraying of students on the way out. There was no riot. This was not Kent State. All that is good.

Everything was just fine until somebody made a bad (not illegal, mind you) decision to use O.C. spray against passively resisting non-threatening students.

In the end, the police retreated and the students chanted “you can go.” And police did.

It gets me thinking, people have been upset about the militarization of police for years. Seems like nobody listens or cares until a few college students get maced by cops in riot gear. I guess better late than never. But the smell of mace in the morning is so minor compared to what is going on elsewhere in this country. For instance, innocent people continue to get killed in drug raids.

People are actually fighting and dying for real freedom in other countries (Egypt comes to mind). I’m happy our standards are higher. But we should all be a bit thankful for the (mostly) civil society in which we Americans live. I can write this. You can disagree. And nobody is going to knock on our doors and arrest us. God bless America.

Finally, a few minor points:

Am I the only one, but chanting crowds always bug me. Something about the mindlessness of chanting always rugs me the wrong way. Is there not a certain dignity to silence?

And since when did college students start referring to themselves as “children”? What ever happened to “I am a man”?

And before some huffy cop corrects me, I know that police do not technically “mace” people. Police use O.C. (Oleoresin Capsicum) spray, which is a related to hot peppers (hence the “capsicum” of O.C.). I think mace is actually another chemical. But many people, including myself, always use mace as a generic term for anything that comes out of spray can and hurts like hell. Besides “stop or I’ll administer a chemical O.C. spray” does not have the same ring to it.

Finally, on the lighter side of pepper spray, of course there’s a tumblr blog.


Unknown said...

Very good analysis. I searched around a bit when people started accusing Pike of committing a felony, and found this page:


Does this indicate that Pike's actions were indeed illegal, at least in California? I'm so sick of rumors! What, exactly, is the law?

PCM said...

I'm no lawyer, but I think his actions were absolutely legal. That doesn't make it right.

And there is no exact law because there's not a case study that covers every situation. The law as it applies to police has a lot to do with what is "reasonable" and what is "negligent." Those are always open to debate. But I'm going by the assumption that he was following training and issued a warning and was enforcing a lawful order. To me, it doesn't get any more legal than that.

Anonymous said...

Mace is a company that makes pepper spray and chemical agents.

Anonymous said...

Here is their website


Anonymous said...

Al Baker was an idiot in that article. He puts rational things meant to keep people safe, such as going into Zuccotti by surprise, at night, in the same bin as irrational things, like small departments that expect every cop to act like a Navy Seal. But then again, Al was always bad at what he does.

Anonymous said...

...and the police have been macing protestors and wearing helmets at protests for over 50 years now that I can recall. Was his article actually meant to be titled "Policing: consistent over decades and lifetimes?" This is why I refuse to pay for the NYT.

PCM said...

Mace is a company? I did not know that. Thanks.

As to Al Baker, I've defended him in the past and I think this article raises good points. Though you're right about the specifics, do you really think policing has remained consistent over decades and lifetimes? That's a pretty absurd statement, especially when it comes to the militarization of police (though perhaps Occupy isn't the best way to illustrate this).

PCM said...

See Balko's latest piece.

Factually, what part of it isn't true?

Now the militarization of police may not bother you, but that's different from the idea that things have changed.

I have a rule of thumb: give cops toys and they'll play with them. If if those toys are surplus military equipment designed to protect US troops and kill a foreign enemy, well, I don't think those are toys that city police should be playing with when they serve a standard arrest warrant.

Anonymous said...

This is the stuff that worries me as well. You should see the Officer forum boards. Meatheads in love with jonesing about their off duty gun or "joining up", what is this the Marines? People watching too much of those crappy SWAT TV shows and thinking that's policing: Beefy dudes in black BDUs grunting. I'd love to watch a SWAT episode where they have to calmly defuse a domestic and then spend an hour doing paperwork.

PCM said...

Bravado mixed with a bit of stupidity doesn't bother me (though maybe it should). The inability to ever -- even possibly -- have the slightest bit of empathy (I'm not asking for sympathy) for those you police does bother me. It also makes for dangerous policing.

Olathe attorney criminal said...

Interesting but factual. thanks for the good read.

Anonymous said...

"do you really think policing has remained consistent over decades and lifetimes? That's a pretty absurd statement, especially when it comes to the militarization of police (though perhaps Occupy isn't the best way to illustrate this)."

We agree. Policing has become more militarized, but not necessarily that much in NYC or LA, and not for the reasons Al Baker talks about, or for the examples he gives.

My criticism wasn't against his point. He just talked to some cop or professor and got the article idea of militarization, which is correct. But then he used his lack of police knowledge and his bad reporting skills to write an article that doesn't make the point.

If you read his article, you would think policing has gone unchanged for decades.

Anonymous said...

they made no effort, even after macing some of the students, of breaking out. I do not believe that police used force because of any perceived threat to their physical safety.

Christ, if we're going to discuss the bettering of police then we need to at least be talking about the actual issue this incident presented. I brought up the surrounded thing in another post and the context is that the surrounding is to prevent the police from carrying out their A/P's. No the police didn't feel an imminent threat. So what, it's not why they deployed OC.

It's clear in the videos that the people in the ring meant to physically resist being pulled apart. Being to individually step over the human barrier absolutely does not mean it's advisable to try and carry a bunch of arrested persons over them. The issue facing those cops is clearing a path to leave with their A/P's and whether it's better to physically pry them apart with numbers and muscle or is it better to have a tool like OC do some of the work. There's also the larger question of should tools like the taser and OC ever be used on anyone short of violent resistance?

I tend to favor the hands on thing myself. My taser's never come off my belt and my OC's only ever been used on dogs. But, there's a hell of a lot of unwarranted certainty flying around about this incident, mostly from people who've never used force on anyone in their lives. It's not uncommon for both cops and perps to suffer injuries worse than OC from hands on type force. Now I think there's a case to be made that those are acceptable risks and that on principle tools such as OC and tasers are for more violent resisting subjects and I'd probably largely be on your side in that. But those Davis cops weren't nuts or sadistic for thinking that the OC was actually a safer way to go about clearing that path.

PCM said...

Thanks for the comment.

But the cops didn't mace the protesters who were (perhaps) blocking the way out. They maced the ones sitting down in the middle. What's the point in that?

It was to affect an arrest. It was for non-compliance. Debatably justified (though I think pretty stupid). But it seems to me that defenders of the OC spray here are confusing the issue of police being (perhaps) surrounded with those whom the maced was actually used against (passive non-violent resisters).

One is about officer safety and the other is about tactics.

Anonymous said...

From the pics I saw that was the way out. Right now the originals are getting an error on the Davis Enterprise but there's some copies.


First one is pre crowd gathering and tents being taken down but it gives a better view of the layout then a lot of the ground level shots.


Second one AFAICT still looks like surrounded to me. And as I recall the original captions on the Davis Enterprise site by the guy who took the pics specifically mentioned the preventing of the cops leaving with the people arrested during the takedown of the tents, which means the intent of the human ring was pretty clear to everyone on scene. Pretty peaceful way of trying to stop an arrest to be sure, but still not a good idea to try and carry A/P's over a ring of people.

They sprayed the ones on the walkway, which from that first pic, is in fact the way out you'd take carrying your A/P's.

Anonymous said...

In watching the videos, I wonder what the reason for the skirmish line was? It seems like bad tactics put them in a situation where they caused the natives to get restless. It would have been better to have done the tent take down at 4 am with more officers and less day protesters. Bad tactics are often the root cause of using force in a situation when it could have been avoided. I was confused why he was spraying those seated while others were moving around to his side and back. Aren't they the ones that are a threat at that point? This was bad tactics and poor decision making. Hold the officers in charge and the ones using the force accountable to policy and if appropriate, criminal charges. I'm confused why you throw out the "militarization of police" comments into this. Outside of the spraying the seated students, the tactics looked appropriate given the threats and are standardized throughout police forces nation wide. The problems occurred in the decision making.

Anonymous said...

Everything was just fine until somebody made a bad (not illegal, mind you) decision to use O.C. spray against passively resisting non-threatening students.

Actually, Peter, I'd have to disagree with your definition in this instance of their "passive" resistance.

Had they simply been sitting down next to each other, closely even, then I would have considered their actions passive.

However, the minute they interlocked arms they went from passive to active resistance. Just something to consider when defining what type of resistance they were undertaking.

PCM said...

Thanks. That's a very good point.

I think I was confusing (either in my head or on my keyboard) passive with peaceful.