Yesterday, at Santa Monica College, campus police pepper sprayed about thirty students. I have seen no allegation that any of the students were violent or even used civil disobedience; the main problem seems to have been — in the college president’s words — that the small boardroom wasn’t able to accommodate all of the students who wanted to speak: ”We expected some students, but we didn’t expect that big of a crowd with such enthusiasm.”
When students demanded entrance to the room the meeting was being held — a tiny room, with room for only a handful of outsiders (by a great coincidence) — the police went wild.
As the Los Angeles Times writes, students were protesting the creation of a two-tiered payment system:
[I]t’s perfectly understandable why Santa Monica College officials, scrambling to make ends meet, have proposed increasing fees for certain in-demand classes to about $600 to $800 per course, or a little more than four times the standard price. The courses would pay their own way, allowing the college to accommodate more students.
Understandable, but wrong. Creating a two-tier system of fees sets a serious precedent that could change the basic nature of the community college system. Once a handful of courses pay for themselves, the temptation to add more would be hard to resist, and the temptation for other campuses to join in would be overwhelming. College fees are set by the Legislature and overseen by the systemwide chancellor’s office in Sacramento. A single campus should not have the authority — and it’s doubtful it does — to set the price for a community college education.
But to the question of the moment: how does this happen? How does pepper spray become the act of first resort? Even the anodyne phrasing of the LA Times admits that pepper spray was used proactively (“Several were also overcome when pepper spray was released just outside the meeting room as officers tried to break up the crowd”) and not in response to some kind of clear and present danger.
Or, rather, it was. A crowd must be dispersed before it does something, goes the logic of the new preemptive policing; a crowd is, itself, a clear and present danger. If you wait until the crowd actually does something, you’ve waited too long. And so you preempt it by striking first.
If you doubt that this is the way these people think, I’d invite you to read Jeff Young — the current assistant police chief at UCLA — writing his “operational review” of UC Berkeley’s police actions against protesters from last November 9th, and note that his main takeaway was that campus police should have probably been allowed to use pepper spray. For more successful protest management, he decides, what the police need is more force options. Perhaps Tasers?
That’s not a joke. He actually observes that while Tasers are “a fairly new crowd management tactic for police,” they “have proven to be very effective,” and notes that a “special panel of the Chancellor of UCLA rigorously reviewed the use of these devices [and] found the use of this level of force within applicable law and police policy.” He makes some observations about how they should be used (he notes that “the use of ECD should almost always be limited to the “drive stun” mode, which is the direct contact with the intended target and not the deployment of probes…Just the display and “sparking” of the ECD usually has the desired effect of moving a crowd back from a protected area or police skirmish line”) but, overall, he makes it quite clear that the problem with what happened last November, as he sees it, was primarily tactical. Mistakes were made, but to him, these mistakes seem primarily to consist of: not enough “pain compliance” technology, not used soon enough.
Now, at this point, we should note that this is the same UCLA campus police who racially profiled a student in the UCLA library, tasered the hell out of him, and then were hit with a civil suit for doing so, leading to a $220k decision against UCLA. The operations executive of the UCLA police department that was in charge of the “UCLA Taser Incident” – notorious enough that it has its own wikipedia entry — actually came to my school and extolled the virtues of using Tasers to break up crowds. He even cites the fact that “A special panel of the Chancellor of UCLA rigorously reviewed the use of these devices [and] found the use of this level of force within applicable law and police policy.” He doesn’t so much mention the fact that the panel was only convened because that massive clusterfuck, a clusterfuck that happened because of UCPD’s shoot first policies. He actually had the gall to point to a panel convened to re-assess the use of Tasers — after a huge and disastrous misuse of them — as part of the evidence that Tasers can and should be used to break up crowds. It’s something like pointing t the 9/11 commission as an example of best practices for how to stop terrorist attacks.
Anyway, I think we should pay just as much attention to the fact that a fellow like Young is, also, all for using pepper spray to clear crowds, in exactly the same way as Santa Monic college police did. While UCPD at Berkeley used their batons appropriately and effectively, Jeff Young wrote in his report that they could have been even more appropriate and effective if they’d been able to use pepper spray. For example, he writes that:
“One officer interviewed recalled explicitly asking for clarification on this point as they “went over the rules of engagement.” He wanted the command staff to confirm that, “that only leaves us with our batons. I said so I need to hear it. You’re saying that we use our batons because there’s nothing left?” In this officer’s opinion, the use of OC spray could have been a “tremendous” help and would have likely reduced the number of people injured.”
And that, during the melee,
“a request to use OC spray from front-line supervisors was routed to Chief Celaya, who denied approval of the use of OC spray. This was a difficult decision that was influenced by the previous discussions with campus administration. The use of OC may have been very effective if used at the main point of conflict at the first confrontation.”
And then in his findings, he argues that any misuse of batons — any problems that may have arisen as a result of that baton use — were really caused by inappropriate limitations on police options:
by receiving an outright ban on the use of OC spray, officers were limited to few force options. They could have stood there and done nothing, retreated or use their batons, the action taken. Having such a limited number of options is inappropriate for crowd management and takes away several very effective options that most of the officers are trained to use. Probably, the most appropriate for this situation was the use of OC spray.
He does acknowledge that pepper spray isn’t actually all that popular, and makes a very veiled reference to the infamous “Pepper Spray Cop” at UC Davis (which happened a week after the melee at Berkeley), before concluding, again, that pepper spray is very effective:
OC or Pepper Spray is a controversial type of force. This is especially true in light of recent events at campus demonstrations. Controversies aside, OC Spray can be a very effective tool for crowd control.
“Controversies aside,” he says, the right application of “pain compliance” techniques and technologies could have been used to clear this crowd, and — we can all hope — next time, it will be. Which is why this story from Santa Monica College is only the latest in what will be a continuing trend: when students protest, they will be preempted by a wide range of force options.