It looks as though he's spraying weeds in the garden or coating the oven with caustic cleanser.

Share story

It looks as though he’s spraying weeds in the garden or coating the oven with caustic cleanser.

It’s not just the casual, dispassionate manner in which the University of California, Davis, police officer pepper-sprays a line of passive students sitting on the ground. It’s the way the can becomes merely a tool, an implement that diminishes the students’ humanity and widens a gulf between the police and the people whom they are entrusted to protect.

The video, which shows the officer using the spray against Occupy protesters Friday, went viral over the weekend. On Sunday, the university placed two police officers on administrative leave while a task force investigates.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

On Monday, the university said Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, who was assistant chief of police at the University of Washington Police Department from October 2000 to May 2005, also was placed on administrative leave in an effort to restore trust and calm tensions after Friday’s crackdown on the “Occupy UC Davis” encampment, which resulted in 10 arrests.

Mark Yudof, president of the University of California system, said Sunday that he was “appalled” by images of protesters being pepper-sprayed and plans an assessment of law-enforcement procedures on all 10 campuses.

“Free speech is part of the DNA of this university, and nonviolent protest has long been central to our history,” Yudof said. “It is a value we must protect with vigilance.”

He said it was not his intention to “micromanage our campus police forces,” but he said all 10 chancellors would convene soon for a discussion “about how to ensure proportional law-enforcement response to nonviolent protest.”

The clip could become the defining imagery of the Occupy movement, rivaling in symbolic power, if not in actual violence, images from the Kent State shootings more than 40 years ago during the height of the Vietnam War protests.

Another controversial image, that of an elderly woman who was hit with pepper spray during an Occupy protest in Seattle, made this nonlethal form of crowd control an iconic part of the new protest movement, but some say the UC Davis video goes further in raising important questions about the place of nonviolent protest and the role of police in a democratic society.

The Friday protest was held in support of the overall Occupy Wall Street movement and in solidarity with protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, who were struck by police with batons Nov. 9.

Pepper spray is an inflammatory agent that derives its active ingredient from chili peppers. When the spray is deployed, it causes nearly instant inflammation, resulting in dilation of the capillaries in the eyes, paralysis of the larynx and a burning sensation on the skin. In many countries it is defined as a weapon and often is illegal for civilians to possess.

For crowd control it is considered far superior to more violent forms of self-defense. But, like Tasers, which also can cause severe injury and death, there is increasing concern that pepper spray is being used by law enforcement without discretion or proper understanding of its dangers. The UC Davis video could amplify those concerns.

The police officer emerges from the margins of the scene, walks in front of a line of students sitting on the ground with arms interlaced, and sprays a thick stream of orange liquid into their faces. The crowd surrounding the students erupts in cries of “shame, shame,” questioning police about whom they are protecting.

The spraying is slow and deliberate, one face after another, down the line. Critics call it a shocking sight: a police officer, especially one at a university, casually applying a toxic chemical to people as if they were garden pests.

Charles Key, a former lieutenant with the Baltimore Police Department who wrote the department’s use-of-force manual, said the officers clearly were within their rights to use the spray.

After reviewing the footage, Key said he observed at least two cases of “active resistance” by protesters. In one, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques, he said.

University police generally operate under a more benign, paternalistic understanding of the law than other police. They are there to ensure the safety of students, to help with the messier details of the in loco parentis function of the university.

A half-century ago, many parents told their children to ask an officer for help in case of trouble. Now critics say police forces are defining their role as more military than civilian, viewing citizens with suspicion and sometimes treating them with hostility. Some warn that saying the wrong thing to an officer, asking for a warrant before a search, throwing a snowball at an unmarked patrol car, legally taking a picture of an official building, questioning an officer about why a public area has been closed can lead to threats of arrest, or worse.

But police on university campuses are still often seen as they once were: your friend.

The UC Davis police force has defended the use of pepper spray. An independent police expert quoted by The Associated Press called pepper spray a “compliance technique,” a reminder of the George W. Bush administration and what some denounced as euphemisms for torture.

According to the Seattle Police Department’s training manual, less-that-lethal force — specifically OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) spray or other riot-control chemical agents — ordinarily is not used to overcome passive resistance by nonviolent and/or peaceful protesters, absent additional compelling factors, or unless previously approved by an incident commander.

Beyond stirring outrage, the UC Davis video could open up a broader conversation about the role of police, especially at a time when protest against the established order may become more frequent and widespread. Observers point out that this new era of protest, if it continues to develop, will play out on the Internet, with rapidly uploaded videos providing not only evidence of what happens but evidence from numerous perspectives as encounters are recorded by onlookers and participants.

Seattle Times staff contributed

to this report.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.