Berkeley to Consider Allowing Police to Use Pepper Spray During Demonstrations

A fire burns on UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza during protest against a scheduled appearance on Feb. 1, 2017 by conservative commentator Milo Yiannopolous. (Brittany Hosea-Small/UC Berkeley)

Berkeley is considering changing its 20-year policy banning police from using pepper spray during demonstrations.

The proposal was hammered out by Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin and Police Chief Andrew Greenwood ahead of upcoming speaking engagements on the UC Berkeley campus by right-wing talk show host Ben Shapiro and conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.

The longstanding policy forbids using the chemical irritant as a form of crowd control. The change would allow police to use pepper spray in crowd situations, but only against specific individuals committing acts of violence. Arreguin told KQED that the amendment would not allow using pepper spray against non-violent protesters, passive resisters, those resisting arrest or those involved in violence against property.

Chief Greenwood requested the change, citing “a series of coordinated attacks by extremists in Berkeley [that] have resulted in violent riots, injuries and the destruction of property.”

In his report to the City Council, Greenwood details several demonstrations this year, which featured violent clashes between large groups of masked anti-facists and right-wing protesters. Greenwood argued “the emergence of tactics involving weapons, shields, and the large-scale, coordinated maneuver of large groups of masked individuals” … require the Berkeley Police Department to be prepared and properly equipped “to protect free speech and keep our community safe.”

Fringe-right conservatives and white nationalists have recently descended on Berkeley — making the home of the Free Speech Movement a flashpoint in the culture wars.

Greenwood called the city a “battleground for extremist groups.” But the chief’s report seems mostly focused on Antifa protesters, who, he said, show up armed with shields. Pepper spray would be more effective since shields cannot provide full protection against the chemical, he said.

The policy change is being sought on an emergency basis, in light of upcoming events and expected protests. Arreguin defended the rush as an “urgent situation … to maintain order and public safety.”

It’s unclear how the City Council will vote. Councilmember Kate Harrison is leary to change such a longstanding policy so quickly.

“We’re in a cycle of reacting to events… without really thinking through the consequences,” Harrison said.

BPD has come under criticism for excessive use of force in recent years — including during a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest. Harrison also raised questions about the effectiveness of pepper spray, which she said could lead someone to become more aggressive and create panic in a crowd situation.

The special City Council hearing begins at 3 p.m.

Read the full motion before the Berkeley City Council below.

Motion, Special Meeting Item # 1

Motion to re-affirm and further amend the Berkeley City Council’s policy regarding the use of pepper spray by the Berkeley Police Department as such use relates to crowd control, expression of First Amendment speech, and addressing acts of violence by specific individuals within a crowd, as follows (in bold):

Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper spray) shall not be used as a crowd control technique to disperse a crowd or move a crowd.

Pepper spray shall not be used on persons engaged in legal speech or other expression that is protected by the First Amendment, nor upon those committing unlawful acts by non-violent or passive resistance means, (e.g. sitting or lying down to block a street or doorway).

Police may use pepper spray upon specific individuals within a crowd who are committing acts of violence upon police or others.

Berkeley to Consider Allowing Police to Use Pepper Spray During Demonstrations 12 September,2017Tara Siler


Tara Siler

Tara reports and sometimes anchors for KQED news. She covers a range of issues from community-police relations to local politics. Tara started out in community radio in the Bay Area, where she was raised. She eventually moved to Washington DC where she covered Congress for eight years for Pacifica and Monitor Radio. Her stories have also been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition and The World.

Tara lives with her husband in Oakland– where they raised their two sons. She enjoys spending time with her large family, gardening and hiking in the Oakland hills with her dog.

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