Pepper Spray Outrage at UC Davis: When Do Police Have the Right to Use ‘Less-Lethal Force’?

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Wayne Tilcock / The Enterprise / AP

Occupy protester David Buscho is helped after being pepper sprayed Nov. 18, 2011, by University of California, Davis police officers in Davis, California.

You can almost feel the sting in your eyes upon watching the videos: Dozens of seated, passive protesters at the University of California, Davis take multiple blasts of pepper spray to the face, all fired at point-blank range. While the college investigates the incident, the campus police chief Annette Spicuzza has been put on leave, as have two officers captured on video spraying the harmful substance. Still, questions persist as to the amount of force used in this confrontation, as well as other Occupy altercations across in the country. Some students in Davis certainly appeared rowdy and provocative, but the viral video footage has sparked the broader question: When is it appropriate for authorities to break out the pepper spray?

“I’d rather be hit with a taser,” says Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. “It hurts like hell, but when the electricity goes off, it’s over and done with. The spray is so nasty.” While that may sound extreme, tasers and pepper spray are widely accepted to be on the same level of the Use of Force Continuum, a hierarchy based on recommendations by the National Institute of Justice to govern the extremity of weapons used against a disorderly person. The spectrum ranges from mere police presence, which is enough to scare some people into cooperation, up to the use of lethal force. Of course, the jolt delivered by pepper spray or a taser isn’t lethal, placing both a step below, in a category called “less-lethal force.”

(PHOTOS: The Prevalence of Pepper Spray in Protests)

However, the use of less-lethal tactics may sometimes be employed out of order. “It’s so you don’t have to put your hands on someone,” Alpert tells TIME. According to Alpert, who also teaches criminology at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, force with soft and hard hands — essentially pushing and prying people — should come well before the use of less-lethal weapons including pepper spray, tasers and batons.

But what type of situation would spark an escalation in the amount of force needed? “Pepper spray should only be used when there’s a clear threat to officers or severe-enough resistance — essentially, when the only alternative is more extreme force,” says Dr. John MacDonald, professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “But if the only threat is time, then the best weapon to exercise is patience.”

(PHOTOS: Occupy Protests Spread Across the World)

It may have been time that was the ultimate obstruction in the UC Davis incident. Numerous cameras caught the students sitting in a circle in the middle of the university quad, arms linked and apparently engaged in an act of civil disobedience. While it’s known that the protesters overstayed their welcome on campus — they were told to move their campsite from the area by 3 p.m. but still remained at 5 p.m. when police showed up — video footage shows a majority of them making no overtly threatening gestures toward the authorities. And what about those yelling at police? Alpert invokes the “sticks and stones” proverb to identify the necessary amount of force. “Words don’t justify that kind of treatment,” he says, explaining that even if the protesters were being disruptive, there are additional ways of getting them to disperse without inflaming their eyes — or their tempers. Alpert notes that police are taught how to break up daisy chains of people, which can be done by prying apart people’s arms and legs with a baton.

Alpert, not surprisingly, says he would also rather be hit by a baton than pepper spray.

A spokeswoman for California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training tells TIME that there’s no statewide policy on the use of pepper spray. It’s up to the individual police departments to determine when the situation calls for its use. But it’s clear that pepper spray should require a high threshold. It’s quite possible that this situation would not have sparked such public debate had there been fewer cameras in the crowd. But Alpert says this is simply part of today’s rapidly-evolving media landscape: “Police should expect everything they do these days to be on video.”

READ: Police Pepper-Spray Protesters at UC Davis

See the pepper spray video that caused outrage on the Internet:

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