Dumb-ass Training and the U.C. Davis Pepper Spray Incident: Thoughts From a Former Cop

This UC Davis pepper-spray incident from yesterday, in which campus police sprayed a group of protesting “Occupy” students who were sitting on the ground, was just brought to my attention. I don’t know all the facts, but as a former cop-turned-academic, there’s one thing I can say.

In the police academy, I was taught to pepper-spray people for non-compliance. Ie: “Put your hands behind your back or I’ll… mace you.” It’s crazy. Of course we didn’t do it this way, the way we were taught. Baltimore police officers are too smart to start urban race riots based on some dumb-ass training. So what did we do to gain compliance? We grabbed people. Hands on. Like real police. And we were good at it.

Some people, perhaps those who design training programs, think policing should be a hands-off job. It can’t be and shouldn’t be. And trying to make policing too hands-off means people get Tased and maced for non-compliance. It’s not right. But this is the way many police are trained. That’s a shame. (Mind you, I have no problem using such less-lethal weapons on actual physical threats, but peaceful non-compliance is different.)

When police need to remove protesters–whether that’s even the case here I don’t know–it needs to be crystal clear who gives the order, be it the president of the university or the ranking officer on scene. Officers on the scene shouldn’t be thrown under the bus because their superiors gave stupid (albeit lawful) orders. Accountability matters.

And if police need to remove these students, then the police can go in four officers to one protester and remove them. Lift them up and take them away. Maybe you need one or two more officers with a threatening baton to keep others from getting involved. It really can be that simple.

People don’t hate the police for fighting off aggressors or arresting law breakers. They do hate police for causing pain–be it by dog, fire hose, Taser, or mace–to those who passively resist. And that’s what happened yesterday at U.C. Davis.

Peter Moskos

Peter Moskos is a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.