Police Brutality Needs a Reassessment

Much has been made of the recent incidents of “police brutality” surrounding college campus Occupy Wall Street protests. In particular, the UC Davis pepper spraying video (which went viral) has elicited strong reactions from Americans across the political spectrum: from conservatives who feel that the police infringed on liberty, to liberals who feel that the use of pepper spray in this incident was disproportionate to the context.

My first reaction on seeing the video was extreme disappointment with the casual use of a relatively painful crowd dispersal agent on a group of people who looked a lot like me. But as with most viral videos, it is worthwhile to consider context and revelations surrounding the incidents depicted.

Linda Katehi, chancellor of UC Davis, has come under fire for her role in this incident, while the police chief and police officers involved in the pepper spray incident have been placed on leave. There is an ongoing investigation, and media attention has focused mercilessly on the campus. So it is safe to say that the cops probably did not engage in casual “brutality” thinking they could “get away with it” as some commentators have alleged. Whatever you think of campus riot policy, it is clear that the police are held accountable, and thus, there is no real impetus for arbitrary or disproportionate action against any group of students.

So why then, would the police walk up to students and pepper spray them? Here, the video is misleading. The police did not do this in order to “obey orders” or even to clear the protestor camp. Eli Pearsson, one of the protestors who was pepper-sprayed, recently admitted that “we had encircled them and they were trying to leave and they were trying to clear a path.” Surrounding the police and entrapping them when they are trying to move from one place to another is not a First Amendment right. Police are trained to respond to such an action as a threat to their person. Analyzing the video shows the precarious position of a group of police officers completely thwarted from free movement.

Secondly, the police gave ample warning of exactly what would happen if less painful methods of persuasion to allow them to pass were unheeded. UC Davis College Republicans recently released the full video of exactly what happened that day. For almost nine minutes, police were taunted, hassled, verbally attacked, and thwarted by encircling protestors in their attempts to execute Katehi’s request to clear out the encampment. There was real reason to fear that the confrontation with howling protestors would turn violent. At UC Berkeley, the much-maligned baton incident was precipitated by officers being attacked with chairs, bricks, and plywood thrown by the protestors, with “documented incidents of injury to officers.” Again, attacking police officers is not a First Amendment right. But the use of pepper spray was in specific response to the media assault on the use of batons at Berkeley, which ruled them out for use at Davis.

The sensationalized anti-police manner in which the UC Davis confrontation has been portrayed by the media was completely unjust: the police were doing their job and more protesters should have been arrested for surrounding and threatening the police as they carried out their duties. I am disappointed that Katehi, who had originally ordered the protesters evicted and their tents dismantled, has caved to the protesters, letting them reestablish their tent city, and providing portable toilets for them.

Police in action are usually not a pleasant sight. But I think that we ought to give them a fair hearing. After all, these are men and women who put their lives on line to protect us. In response to anti-police campus sentiment surrounding tent clearings and the Haas Business School shootings, the Federated University Police Officers Association responds:  “Your UC Berkeley Police Department quickly responded to a call for help from one of your fellow campus community members (about a man with a gun on campus). They did this knowing that due to the severity of this type of call, they might never return to their own families.

“This shooting happened at a time where UC Berkeley police officers had recently been harshly criticized because of the way they handled the protestors on November 9th. They already were feeling like there was a lack of support by the UC administration but because of their professionalism and dedication to the campus community’s safety, they responded quickly to this deadly confrontation while putting their own lives on the line.”

Before we engage in a witch-hunt against campus police officers, it is worthwhile to keep these words in mind.

Vasant Ramachandran ’11 majored in Electrical Engineering. His interests include skiing and classical languages. He can be reached at vasantr@stanford.edu.

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