Berkeley police chief asks to use pepper spray on protesters

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As Berkeley officials brace for protests that could easily turn violent when conservative writer Ben Shapiro appears at UC Berkeley next week, the city’s police chief is advocating for a controversial form of crowd control: pepper spray to subdue agitators.

SF Chronicles writes

The City Council will vote on whether to approve Chief Andrew Greenwood’s request — and overturn a 20-year ban on using pepper spray during protests — at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Greenwood made his case in a 26-page memo to the City Council, pointing out that Berkeley’s university campus and Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park have become stages for right- and left-wing extremists who are raring for a fight.

He cited four recent events — on Feb. 1, March 4, April 15 and Aug. 27 — when large, coordinated groups of masked attackers assaulted police officers and “people who were engaging in free speech activities.”

During the Aug. 27 event, a right-wing “No to Marxism in Berkeley” rally at Civic Center Park, scores of masked extremists arrived with a flatbed truck full of weapons and shields, Greenwood wrote. The group set off smoke bombs around the park, then charged in and attacked individuals, then left “under the cover of peaceful demonstrators,” Greenwood wrote.

He said that if officers had been allowed to use pepper spray, they might have deterred the extremists — who often identify as “antifascists” or “antifa.”

“The Berkeley Police Department is currently limited to using batons, less lethal projectiles, smoke and tear gas to confront coordinated groups of extremists who have launched brutal and determined attacks against officers and people whom they have determined should not be allowed to speak or publicly assemble,” Greenwood wrote.

The right to protest is a core credo in Berkeley, which is known as the home of the Free Speech movement, and as a harbor for just about every social movement that followed.

But many politicians appear to be fed up with seeing their city used as a gladiatorial arena for instigators on the right and the left, and support is building for Greenwood’s pepper spray measure.

“I support it,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguin, who recently told reporters at KPIX-TV that antifa should be classified as a gang.

“We need to differentiate between peaceful protesters and violent agitators,” Arreguin told The Chronicle. “Our police need to prevent violence in order to allow free speech.”

Berkeley Police officers are allowed to use pepper spray during individual arrests, but they seem to treat it as a last resort — since 2012, officers have used the chemical irritant an average of three times a year, despite handling hundreds of thousands of calls, and making tens of thousands of arrests and citations, Greenwood said.

He pointed out, however, that large hand-held aerosol spray cans are “an industry standard tool” for situations when angry mobs attack a police line. Such dispensers are used in San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, he said.

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