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Probe Concludes Policies Violated in Pepper Spraying

Report from Santa Monica College's independent panel faults the officer who fired pepper-spray at a group of protestors. The officer resigned in October.

The campus police officer who pepper-sprayed Santa Monica College student protesters as they stormed a Board of Trustees meeting last spring violated department policy, a review by an independent panel has concluded.

Released Friday by campus administrators, the report says the officer used the spray to disperse a crowd, not to arrest or restrain a violent or "threatening suspect," which is protocol, and did not warn students before firing the spray—which was not department-issued.

The report makes 15 recommendations, including that the campus police department adopt new crowd control policies and ban the use of chemical agents in occupied buildings "because of their impact on bystanders." It also recommends officers only use pepper-spray with concentrations of .2 percent—the officer was carrying Sabre Red, the report says is more potent and longer-lasting.

The report cites several sections of Santa Monica Campus Police Department policy, including:

308.11 WHEN DEVICES MAY BE USED When a decision has been made to restrain or arrest a violent or threatening suspect, and approved less lethal control device may only be used when its use appears reasonable under the circumstances.

308.3    CHEMICAL AGENT SPRAY GUIDELINES Only authorized personnel may possess and maintain department issued oleoresin capsicum spray. Chemical agents are weapons used to minimize the potential for injury to officers, citizens or offenders. They should be used only in situations where such force reasonably appears justified and necessary.

In what one college leader called a “black eye on the college,” three were hospitalized and as many as 30 treated for pepper-spray exposure after a campus police officer, identified as Sgt. Jeremiah Williams, deployed pepper spray three times to quell a crowd of demonstrators who appeared ready to storm into the board’s at-capacity meeting room.

Among those exposed to pepper spray were a 4-year-old child and then-Green Party Senate candidate David Steinman.

Williams resigned Oct. 25 and could not be reached for comment.

In a police report, Williams described the scene as violent, with students being pushed and shoved to the ground. Williams said he "yelled numerous times for the group pushing against me to 'get back.'"

"I opined that the deployment of the OC spray would best aid us in stopping the violent actions of the group and prevent serious injury [to] all of us," he wrote.

While the report faults the campus police department for not having an "adequate" operations plan prior to the board meeting, the report also found the campus community "needs to be educated on protest rights and responsibilities."

Generally, expression may not be banned or restricted because of its content (what is said). However, the time, place, and manner of free expression can be regulated.

Expression may be limited when necessary to prevent interference with lawful functions/activities (such as the disruption of classes or offices, obstruction of entrances or exits, or causing traffic congestion), or to protect other important rights (endangering safety, breaching the peace/public order, infringing others' rights to free speech or others’ right to privacy).

College Superintendent and President Dr. Chui L. Tsang said he agrees with the report's findings "that this incident is incompatible with our shared values."

"By adopting these recommendations, Santa Monica College will strengthen its commitment to values of mutual respect and collegial communication," he said in a statement."

The panel convened by Tsang to review the episode was comprised of the college's attorney, the president of its academic senate, a trustee, a dean and the Board of Trustees' student representative.

David Mendez-Yapkowitz January 19, 2013 at 07:17 PM
Speaking from personal experiences as both a student and an employee of Santa Monica College, I've found that the college police are the most respectful and friendly/approachable police department I've ever had contact with. They are visible, and always interacting with students. The actions of one officer does not reflect the entire department, I think it's important we don't make that mistake. It is refreshing to learn that the officer has resigned.

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