BERKELEY — Amid catcalls and cries of “Shame!” from the gallery, the City Council voted Tuesday to allow police to use pepper spray in an effort to control violent protesters — an authorization requested by Police Chief Andrew Greenwood two days before conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s scheduled speech on the UC Berkeley campus.
The motion, which was put forward by Mayor Jesse Arreguin, amends the city’s policy to let police officers use pepper spray on “specific individuals within a crowd who are committing acts of violence upon police or others.” It further states that pepper spray “cannot be used to disperse a crowd or on people engaged in peaceful legal or unlawful nonviolent resistance.”
Berkeley in recent months has become a battleground between conservative and right-wing activists and left-wing groups, resulting in violent attacks that have left civilians and police officers injured.
The council called a special meeting Tuesday to determine whether to amend its crowd control policy to let police officers use the pepper spray canisters that they already carry on their belts for violent crowd control situations.
More than two dozen people spoke out against the policy, arguing that it would escalate, rather than de-escalate crowd violence, create adverse health effects for innocent bystanders, and change a 1997 policy with little opportunity for public review. Less than a handful of people spoke in favor of the policy.
Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Cheryl Davila, and Kate Harrison voted against the measure.
In a letter to the council, Greenwood said amending the policy would help police respond to violence. He said a pepper spray aerosol dispenser would allow officers to employ “a direct, limited application of force to repel specific attackers. By contrast, he said, tear gas releases a chemical irritant into a larger area that can affect peaceful protesters, while using batons carries a greater risk of injury to both officers and suspects.
“In this time of coordinated attacks by extremist groups in our community, the prohibition against pepper spray deprives the Berkeley Police Department of an important intermediary form of force as an alternative to tear gas and batons,” Greenwood argued. “When intermediate force is not available, unchecked violence can escalate, creating a need for more significant use of force.”
Shapiro is scheduled to speak 7 p.m. Thursday to a sold-out crowd at Zellerbach Hall expected to draw 1,000 students. At least one group, Refuse Fascism, is planning to protest his appearance and has called for a 6 p.m. rally in Lower Sproul Plaza.
Four times this year, protests and speeches by conservative and far-right groups in the city and on campus erupted in violence. Berkeley officials are concerned about more violent outbreaks during Shapiro’s speech and later this month during Free Speech week when far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative commentator Ann Coulter have indicated that they intend to appear on campus.
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