The scenes that describe certain events or incidents in the course of human events sometimes distort the actuality of those events and incidents; and, thus, leave a flawed portrait as a historical record. For example, while the public saw the “brutality” of the Los Angeles Police Department in the Rodney King incident, they did not see the fact that King was driving 100 miles per/hour while “under the influence” prior to being pulled over by the police. These circumstances, by providing a context, mitigated the harshness, to some extent, of the conduct of the LAPD. Or, at least, they clouded the public’s view and left a basis for some to rationalize the conduct of the police.
On other occasions, a certain scene is so distasteful or repulsive that the context becomes irrelevant. Such was the case when “Bull” Connor, the Police Chief of Birmingham, Alabama, unleashed police attack dogs and turned fire hoses on blacks during the Civil Rights Movement. Connor’s behavior could not be rationalized or explained away because it offended the moral sensibilities of the nation.
The recent incident at the Davis campus of the University of California, in which a member of the campus police is shown casually strolling in front of students (and possibly others) using pepper spray while those being sprayed sat passively on the ground with their arms folded. This incident falls somewhere between the police reaction to Rodney King and that of Bull Connor, largely the latter.
Although the Davis incident is being linked with the “Occupy Protests” that are being waged throughout the nation, the Davis controversy is only tangentially related to other Occupy events. In fact, more students were protesting fee hikes – a common occurrence at UC – rather than being a part of the Occupy events.
The interesting thing about the Davis incident is the reaction of certain UC administrators, many of whom are spineless, politically correct individuals. In characteristic fashion, several campus chancellors and individuals in the Office of the President have apologized and called for a system-wide study of police departments at the campuses. This is highly unfortunate, if the purpose is to scapegoat rather than to educate those departments.
Were it my granddaughter or grandson being sprayed, I would not be pleased, no matter how much I might be told about the somewhat harmless effects of pepper spray. It just didn’t look right.
On the other hand, I often benefitted as a former UC Regent from the protective services of UC campus police. Theirs is not an easy task.
On most UC campuses, there are several protests that occur each day. While many are orderly, some are quite unruly. In all cases, the campus police are in a damned-if-they-do and damned-if-they-don’t conundrum. As happened during the Davis incident, the protestors were directed to move. They ignored the request. If the police had physically moved them, the consequences of such action could be potentially severe.
The campus environment is invariably one of the most activist and contentious venues for any police officer. Students misbehave, call officers names, and deliberately seek to provoke the campus police. If an officer lays a hand on a student, the reaction can become hostile for the police. Instead, campus police are generally instructed to use pepper spray as a device to control protests in lieu of being physical. As we view the Davis incident, I would agree that it is not a pretty sight.
It is for this reason that there is considerable merit to the decision by the UC President to study the Davis incident in an effort to determine what other protocols might be used when there is civil disobedience on campuses. Or, to more properly instruct campus police about the appropriate use of pepper spray for crowd control purposes.
In any event, I strongly encourage the public to not blindly condemn the Davis police department for this incident.