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Use of pepper spray by UC Davis police generates debate

November 24, 2011 | 12:01 pm

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi walks past silent protesters as she leaves her office at the campus in Davis

The use of pepper spray on protesters at UC Davis has raised a larger question about when police departments use that level of force on protesters -- and exposes inconsistencies in rules.

Besides the pepper spray incident, there has been debate about the police decision to wield batons against protesters, including former poet laureate Robert Haas, at UC Berkeley on Nov. 9.

Although all UC police departments' 300 or so sworn officers operate under an 86-page, systemwide guide, officials at each campus have wide discretion, particularly in adapting use-of-force policies. For example, said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein, officers at UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz and UCLA do not carry Tasers, but other departments do.

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"UCSF has a six-level continuum" in addressing protesters, Klein said. Level 1 involves "mere presence, show and look mean," she explained. "Six is deadly force. Pepper spray and batons are Level 5.

"Again, it's not a stair-step, where each must be applied before you go to the next…. Escalation is based on sound judgment."

At UC Berkeley, Police Chief Mitch Celaya has not authorized the use of large pepper spray canisters like the ones used against students at Davis, said Capt. Margo Bennett. "It is just something we would rather not use on our campus."

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Although officers carry small canisters on their utility belts, Bennett said, it is "not intended for primary use in dispersing crowds."

The incident at Berkeley is under review, Bennett said, declining to discuss specifics. But officers used their batons because "the crowd behavior at that moment was not a simple peaceful linking of arms. It was active resistance, where the crowd was pushing against police and acting in a non-peaceful manner."

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi also apologized this week to students at Davis. Her office has said police used pepper spray against her orders to remain peaceful.


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Photo: UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi walks past silent protesters as she leaves her office at the campus in Davis. Reuters