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Did the pepper spray cop use excessive force at UC Davis?

AP Photo/The Enterprise, Wayne Tilcock

In this Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, photo University of California, Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school's quad Friday in Davis, Calif. Two University of California, Davis police officers involved in pepper spraying seated protesters were placed on administrative leave Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011, as the chancellor of the school accelerates the investigation into the incident.

In just a few days, UC Davis campus cop John Pike has entered his 15-minutes-of-infamy. All it took was a can of weapons-grade pepper spray and a group of Occupy protestors. And the web. And Photoshop. You get the idea. News travels fast and then gets twisted to various creative purposes.

The question is, Did Pike use excessive force in dealing with what looked to many like a peaceful demonstration? I think he probably could have held off on the pepper spray. But Higher Ed Live points out that what observers might think is non-violent protest can be perceived differently by police. Cited is a report that grew out of a similar protest at UCLA in 2008, which Higher Ed Live references:

[O]ne very interesting issue was addressed when the report looked at UCLA PD’s use-of-force regulations. This issue was that among the factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of force is “whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”

This is the very issue that is at the heart of last Friday’s incident at UC Davis. Were the students sitting linked arm-in-arm peacefully protesting, or actively resisting police? Were campus police within their rights to deploy force to disperse them?

At UCLA at least, here’s what the report finds:

“It appears from interviews and correspondence that many students and faculty members were under the impression that…locking arms with others to block a pathway would be regarded by police as passive and peaceful resistance not justifying the use of force. In fact, demonstrators who stand, sit, or lie down with arms locked to one another are engaged in ‘active resistance’ as UCLA and other police departments understand that phrase…”

So the issue is whether Pike brought out the pepper spray in response to a demonstration that thought it was non-violent, but was actually running afoul of a use-of-force doctrine that probably needed to be revised. And, one hopes, will be now.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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