The Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 at a special meeting Tuesday to allow the city’s police officers to use pepper spray in a targeted way against specific individuals in potentially violent situations during the types of massive protests the city has had several times this year.
Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood asked for the modification of the city’s 1997 rule against the use of pepper spray during demonstrations in advance of a speech by conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro at the University of California at Berkeley on Thursday night, which is expected to spark the type of clashes that have occurred at previous talks or rallies by conservative groups.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said the modification of the city’s pepper spray policy won’t permit police officers to use pepper spray indiscriminately but instead will allow them to use it against specific violent offenders in crowd situations.
Arreguin said he’s concerned about the type of violence by a small group of antifa activists, also known as anti-fascists, which marred an otherwise-peaceful protest against right-wing extremists in Berkeley on Aug. 27.
“Violence has no place in our democracy.”
He added officers should be able to use pepper spray to protect themselves or others:
“Our police officers are human beings who are there to protect our safety. We have to protect them just as we protect free speech.”
Most of the dozens of speakers who addressed the council at its meeting, which drew an overflow audience, opposed the change in the city’s pepper spray policy.
Andrea Pritchett of Berkeley Copwatch said she fears that if officers are allowed to use pepper spray they will later expand to using more violent methods of trying to control crowds:
“Once the pepper spray starts, what comes next?”
City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who cast one of the three votes against the policy change, said she also thinks that allowing officers to use pepper spray will escalate tensions during protests, not de-escalate them.
Harrison told Greenwood, “You’re asking for bigger weapons” and described the quick move to change the policy as “a rush to justice.”
Harrison said the change won’t work, is poorly considered, risks harm to innocent bystanders and isn’t needed.
Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, who also voted against the change, said:
“I don’t quite understand why this is necessary. … Peace is the answer. Have love in your heart.”
“We’re continuing the fear ideology of the Trump administration and the Bush administration.”
Councilman Kiss Worthington cast the other vote against the policy change.
Greenwood said he thinks the pepper spray policy needs to be modified because, “There are armed groups that are armed and willing to use violence.”
Greenwood said in a memo to the council before the meeting that, “Confronting a large, well-coordinated armed group is challenging for law enforcement in an context.” Greenwood said a pepper spray aerosol dispenser allows officers to employ a direct, limited application of force to repel specific attackers.
He contrasted it with tear gas canisters, which he said “release a cloud of chemical irritant into a larger area and the cloud can affect peaceful demonstrators, observers or uninvolved parties.”
“The use of batons to repel direct attacks on officers carries an inherent risk of injury to both suspects and officers.”