The use of pepper spray has been used in crowd control situations at sporting events, political demonstrations and recently on college campuses to quell what some law enforcement agencies view as unruly behavior.
On April 3, approximately 30 people, many of them Santa Monica College students, were pepper sprayed by campus police at a board of trustees meeting where students were protesting a proposed two-tier tuition system that the trustees had voted to implement.
SMC President Chui L. Tsang characterized the incident as a case of illegal behavior by a few people at the board meeting.
“When some of these demonstrators used force to enter the board room proper, and had overrun the door and the personnel stationed at the door, there was one discharge of pepper spray used by an SMC police officer to preserve public and personal safety,” Tsang said after the pepper-spraying episode. “Unfortunately, a number of bystanders, including college staff, students and other police personnel were affected.
“Although a number of participants at the meeting engaged in unlawful conduct, Santa Monica College police personnel exercised restraint and made no arrests. Unlawful conduct included setting off fire alarms and attempting to disrupt the board of trustees meeting.”
A group of students who banded together to oppose the two-tier system took issue with Tsang’s claims and called for an investigation into the pepper spraying incident.
“We, the students of SMC, call upon President Tsang to condemn the use of police violence and to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of these well-known incidents of brutality,” the students asserted.
“Campus police must be instructed to immediately stop all attempts at intimidation and harassment against student organizers, which began long before the board meeting.”
At an April 3 press conference denouncing the contract education proposal, students with the organizing committee claimed campus police had been hostile to them and accused them of removing some of their posters announcing rallies and meetings.
After the state chancellor of community colleges intervened, SMC officials decided to cancel the program, but the pepper spraying episode was the latest in a series of confrontations that some feel have tarnished the school’s reputation.
Tsang has appointed a panel to investigate how and why students and bystanders were pepper sprayed. In an April 16 letter to students and faculty returning from spring break, the president promised that a transparent investigation would ensue.
“The panel is directed to consider all concerns raised about the police response and make such recommendations as it deems warranted on the policies, practices and protocols relevant to police response to demonstrations and similar events,” Tsang wrote. “Because its investigation will be thorough, we expect it will take several months before the panel’s inquiry is completed.
“I have taken these steps because it is absolutely necessary to maintain public confidence in the safety of our college and in the conduct of our law enforcement officers.”
Last year, an infamous episode involving pepper spray took place on the campus of the University of California at Davis. Police used the compound on protesting students Nov. 18 during an Occupy movement demonstration. Two officers sprayed the substance directly in the face of a group of unarmed protesters who had linked arms and were sitting near the university’s quad.
Several investigations were launched and two of the officers were placed on administrative leave.
Assembly Speaker John Per/z (D-Los Angeles) issued a report on the UC Davis confrontation April 11, which criticized the university’s officials for the way in which the situation was handled.
“(The April 11) report on the Nov. 18 pepper spray incident at UC Davis clearly shows the systemic and administrative problems that led up to an outrageous and excessive use of force against peaceful student demonstrators,” Perez said in a statement. “The report demonstrates that UC Davis officials are responsible for allowing the incident to occur, both in failing to provide clear guidance to the campus police, and in their oversight of the police themselves, as evidenced by the fact that the officers were neither authorized, nor trained, in the use of the specific type of pepper spray used on the students.”
Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, said using the compound on students merits further discussion. “The use of pepper spray is always disturbing to me,” Brownley told The Argonaut. “We should always be looking at our practices (for controlling student demonstrations).”
Among other things, the five- month investigation revealed “the decision to use pepper spray was not supported by objective evidence and was not authorized by policy.”
In addition to criticizing decisions by the university’s administration, the first paragraph of the report states, “The pepper spaying incident that took place on Nov. 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented.”
Paul Wertheimer, who runs an international crowd safety consulting group, Crowd Control Strategies, commended the report issued by the UC regents.
“I applaud the panel,” he said. I thought it was an excellent report.”
Wertheimer, who also reviewed footage from the Santa Monica incident, believes the college administration’s decision to place the police between the students exacerbated an already tenuous situation.
“Police are a necessary part of our society,” said Wertheimer, who took part in anti-Vietnam demonstrations in the 1960s as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. “But their role is to enforce the law… they don’t make school policy.
“When the administration directs (police) to confront students, it puts them in a difficult situation.”
Sgt. Richard Lewis of the Santa Monica Police Department said pepper spray is one component of the department’s less lethal arsenal of tools, but it is not employed on a regular basis.
“We have very few pepper spraying applications,” said Lewis, who has worked crowd control during his time on the police force. “We use the Taser (gun) more often than pepper spray.”
Dr. Carl Shubs, a Beverly Hills psychologist who specializes in trauma, said students often view campus administrators and police as parental and authority figures, and incidents like those at Santa Monica and Davis can alter those dynamics.
“They may feel betrayed and lose that investment of trust,” said Shubs, who is a member of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association’s Media Committee. “They may be reluctant to turn to them later when they need them.”
Wertheimer thinks the use of pepper spray at SMC was unwarranted. “From what I can make of the Santa Monica experience, I think pepper spray was the wrong response weapon to use,” the crowd control expert asserted.
He said using the chemical compound in certain situations could lead to unintended consequences. “The problem with using pepper spray in an enclosed area is that you not only hit the intended targets but everyone else in the area as well,” Wertheimer noted.
The chemical agent in pepper spray, Oleoresin Capsicum can cause severe irritation to the eyes and in some cases temporary blindness.
Megyn Kelly, a Fox News commentator was widely derided after she appeared to minimize the effects of the UC Davis protesters being pepper sprayed.
“It’s like a derivative of real pepper. It’s a food product essentially,” she told host Bill O’Reilly of the “O’Reilly Factor” Nov. 21.
Asked what he thought of Kelly’s comparision of pepper spray to a household spice, Wertheimer responded, “That’s nonsensical and idiotic. (Pepper spray) is a weapon used to temporarily disable.”
Despite his belief that pepper spray should not have been used, Wertheimer believes that there were provocateurs at the trustees meeting. “No question,” he said.
Shubs, who has been in practice for 25 years, said events like what took place at SMC and Davis can polarize relations between students. “Trauma is never about the event,” he said. “It is always about the meaning of the event to the people involved.”
John Vigna, a spokesman for P/rez, said the Assembly leader will be monitoring the situation at Santa Monica College. “While the speaker is not a member of the community college board as he is with the UC Board of Regents, we’ll be happy to look into any role that he can play in bringing resolution to this situation,” Vigna said. “He is hopeful that the community college takes the appropriate and proactive measures to make sure that a situation like this does not happen again.”
In his letter, Tsang said Santa Monica police will also be conducting its own investigation of the April 3 event.