Flash: Berkeley City Council Approves Limited Use of Pepper Spray

Jeff Shuttleworth (BCN) and Planet
Tuesday September 12, 2017 - 10:51:00 PM

The Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 at a special meeting today to allow the city's police officers to use pepper spray in a targeted way against specific individuals in potentially violent situations during the types of massive protests the city has had several times this year.

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood asked for the modification of the city's 1997 rule against the use of pepper spray during demonstrations in advance of a speech by conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro at the University of California at Berkeley on Thursday night, which is expected to spark the type of clashes that have occurred at previous talks or rallies by conservative groups.

Just as the meeting started at 3 p.m. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin introduced a resolution drawn much more narrowly than the one Chief Greenwood had initially requested.

He said the modification of the city's existing pepper spray policy won't permit police officers to use pepper spray indiscriminately but instead will allow them to use it against specific violent offenders in crowd situations. 

Arreguin said he's concerned about the type of violence carried out by a small group of self-identified anti-fascist activists, also know as Antifa, which marred an otherwise-peaceful protest against right-wing extremists in Berkeley on Aug. 27. 

He said, "Violence has no place in our democracy" and officers should be able to use pepper spray to protect themselves or others. 

Arreguin said, "Our police officers are human beings who are there to protect our safety. We have to protect them just as we protect free speech." 

Most of the dozens of speakers who addressed the council at its meeting, which drew an overflow audience, opposed the change in the city's pepper spray policy as it had been originally proposed, and some opposed any use of pepper spray in any context. 

Andrea Pritchett of Berkeley Copwatch said she fears that if officers are allowed to use pepper spray they will later expand to using more violent methods of trying to control crowds.  

"Once the pepper spray starts, what comes next?" Pritchett asked. 

City Councilmember Kate Harrison, who cast one of the three votes against the policy change, said she also thinks that allowing officers to use pepper spray will escalate tensions during protests, not de-escalate them. 

Harrison told Greenwood, "You're asking for bigger weapons," saying that the change would allow police officers to switch from the small single use aerosol they now carry for use on violent individuals to larger cannisters which could be used on violent people in crowds. 

She described the quick move to change the policy as "a rush to justice." 

Harrison said the change won't work, is poorly considered, risks harm to innocent bystanders and isn't needed. 

Councilmember Cheryl Davila, who also voted against the change, said, "I don't quite understand why this is necessary." 

Davila said, "We're continuing the fear ideology of the Trump administration and the Bush administration." 

Before the vote was taken, she said, "Peace is the answer. Have love in your heart." 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington cast the other vote against the policy change but made no statement. 

Voting in favor, in addition to Arreguin, were Councilmembers Maio, Bartlett, Wengraf, Droste and Hahn. 

Greenwood said he thinks the pepper spray policy needs to be modified because, "There are armed groups that are armed and willing to use violence." 

He said in a memo to the council before the meeting that "[c]onfronting a large, well-coordinated armed group is challenging for law enforcement in any context." 

Greenwood said a pepper spray aerosol dispenser allows officers to employ a direct, limited application of force to repel specific attackers. 

He contrasted it with tear gas canisters, which he said "release a cloud of chemical irritant into a larger area and the cloud can affect peaceful demonstrators, observers or uninvolved parties." 

Greenwood added, "The use of batons to repel direct attacks on officers carries an inherent risk of injury to both suspects and officers."