Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pepper Spray and the Erosion of Legitimacy

It seems hard to believe now, but it wasn’t that long ago that pepper spray was a sort of anachronism—a remnant of a time when altercations between protesters and authorities really might have resulted in injuries to the latter. But that was before pepper spray became the new Taser: a toy to be employed by police and police wannabes who lack the skill, training, intelligence, human compassion, or (apparently) penis size to do otherwise.

The turning point was probably the moment when creep-with-a-badge Anthony Bologna sprayed a group of already-confined female protesters at an #Occupy event in New York in September. The women posed no threat to him or anyone else, but that wasn’t enough to a keep a prick like Bologna from summoning his inner sadist. And he probably figured that the idiots up the food chain from him—Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg—would let him get away with it. He was right: a Staten Island resident, Bologna was (ahem) punished by losing some vacation days and being transferred to a post that shortens his commute. A more appropriate punishment would be to fire his sorry ass and charge him with multiple counts of assault.

Anyway, Bologna immediately started playing the victim, fabricating a story the video doesn’t come close to supporting (he even got a pseudo-journalist or two to take his side), and generally representing in a single man everything that made a lot of folks in my generation refer to the police as “pigs.” Actually, if Tony Baloney is what a $150K a year cop looks like, we owe an apology to our porcine friends for comparing them to such a creature.

Of course, Bologna was just the warm-up act. There were other incidents, too, of course, but the next big step-up in police (or pseudo-police) arrogance and malice came in November on the campus of the University of California at Davis, where campus cop Lieutenant John Pike became a household name—and subject of an Internet meme—for all the wrong reasons by pepper spraying over a dozen student protesters with the same body language one would use to spray weed-killer into the cracks in the driveway. Pike is, of course, the quintessential CamPo idiot, with a self-importance to sensibility ratio that’s off the charts. This week, the Task Force charged with investigating the incident released its report. It ain’t pretty.

The report begins, “Our overriding conclusion can be stated briefly and explicitly. The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented.” [emphasis in original] The litany of screw-ups from the Chancellor on down takes nearly 200 pages to spell out. Here are just a few snippets from the table of contents: “failure to investigate,” “ineffectively communicated,” “confusion as to legal basis,” “decision-making process was ineffective,” “Notwithstanding the deficiencies in the operations plan, the incident was not managed according to the plan.”

And then we get to essence: “The decision to use pepper spray was not supported by objective evidence and was not authorized by policy” and “The pepper spray used, the MK-9, First Aerosol Projector, was not an authorized weapon for use by the UCDPD.” And… finally… “Lt. Pike bears primary responsibility for the objectively unreasonable decision to use pepper spray on the students sitting in a line and for the manner in which the pepper spray was used.”

Frankly, all of this was pretty much self-evident at the time; the report merely confirms what we already knew: that the whole incident could have been avoided if any of a handful of people had done their damned jobs, and that John Pike is—or at the very least was, for a telling moment—an amoral bully… and a rather stupid one, at that. Last I could figure out, he was still on paid leave: maybe the report will at least lead to his firing, and/or that of erstwhile Campus Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, also on “administrative leave.” Of course, for the report’s evisceration of Pike to be perceived as having merit, Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi would have to acknowledge that her conduct, too, was blameworthy. They’re all culpable, they’re all incompetent, and they’re all liars. Doesn’t matter. Chances are, all three will be at Davis as long as their little hearts desire. Because California has plenty of money to pay these three buffoons six-figure salaries apiece, after all, right?

Oh, how I wish we had reached the nadir of common sense as regards pepper spray with the events at UC-Davis. Alas, there’s one more step. So far.

A “School Resource Officer” (don’t worry, I don’t know what that is, either--this might help) subsequently identified as Anthony Brown sprayed down a hallway at Jack Robey Junior High (!) in Pine Bluff, Arkansas because the kids weren’t getting to class fast enough. Three students were hospitalized; over a dozen more left school early.

I mean, seriously, how freaking stupid can you get? The list of things transcendently stupid about this tactic would stretch from here to Ashtabula. The National Association of School Resource Officers describes one of the functions of SROs as to “provide a visible and positive image for law enforcement.” Yeah, well, no.

The provocation was miniscule enough as is, but if, as one report suggested, the problem was that students were obstructing the hallway, then the logical surmise is that some of those caught in the logjam might actually be trying to get to class. In other words, innocent people were going to be harmed by the precipitous and bone-headed act. Rather than risk the health and well-being of innocent bystanders, the military and the police will often allow the most heinous of miscreants to escape. This idiot is willing to send people to the hospital (or worse) because somebody else was late for pre-algebra.

Ah, well, but according to the Doofus in Charge Superintendent Jerry Payne, the canister was pointed downward, not directly at the students. Like Jonathan Turley and Jack Marshall, I’m more than a little unimpressed. For one thing, as Turley points out, “The idea of spraying a painful caustic substance into a hall as a crowd motivator is the definition of not just negligence but assault and battery.” For another: if this is the damage caused by pointing the spray away from students, what the hell is in there, and what kind of damage could it do if, like the women in New York or the students at Davis, someone were actually to catch this right in the nose or eyes? Student Faith Forney says she “walked right into it.” And what assurance do we have that similar circumstances wouldn’t lead to someone catching this junk square in the face?

There are serious problems here. What the hell is an SRO doing with spray this potent? Who authorized it, either for the police or for the school district? Who hired this idiot? And—assuming (safely, I suspect) the blame doesn’t all fall to Officer Brown—who was responsible for training people carrying this grade of pepper spray around as to why, when, and how to use it appropriately? And why wasn’t that person fired, along with Brown and Payne?

Three disturbing trends present themselves with respect to the three incidents I just described. First, the officers in question—those with access to this hideous stuff—are increasingly less important: we go from a Deputy Inspector for a major city police force to a lieutenant for a UPD, to a School Resource Officer. The victims went from adults to college students to junior high kids. And the provocation went from yelling at armed policemen to organized passive resistance to walking too slowly. By all three of these taxonomies, then, the situations keep getting more egregious. And that’s after acknowledging that Bologna’s actions were appalling and indefensible.

Another source of some concern is that we, as a culture, seem to be developing a tolerance for this sort of misbehavior by the authorities. The Pine Bluff incident wouldn’t have shown up on my radar screen if I hadn’t read about it on the Ethics Alarms blog. Maybe it wasn’t as “sexy” because it couldn’t be linked to the #Occupy movement, which the media had a grand time covering (as usual) simultaneously too much and too little. But it sure as hell should be a major story: after all, the right likes to blame schools for society’s woes; the left likes to blame the police. Here’s the intersection of both: everybody wins!

Seriously, though, there needs to be some uproar over this stuff. Because the next step in the progression is crossing guards’ pepper spraying kindergartners for wearing mismatched socks.

[The post was edited slightly on 4/15 to clarify that Chief Spicuzza of the UCDPD has also been on administrative leave since shortly after the incident there.]

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