The kids got all the bad press following the College Park uprisings around the University of Maryland during the Final Four. But plenty of civil servants also had a hand, or at least some trigger fingers, in the April Fools’ Day disturbance and its sister soiree two nights earlier, and their contributions to these pepper-spray extravaganzas should not go unrecognized. So, Cheap Seats gives the 2002 Unsportsman of the Year to: Cops With Pepper Spray.
Tumult around College Park after big wins or losses by the Terrapins has become so commonplace in recent years that the official seal of the town should feature a burning frat-house couch. In February 2001, for example, following Maryland’s men’s basketball team’s win over Duke in a regular-season game, students torched a pair of soccer goals on campus. And despite a huge police presence in the area, even more matches were lit after the rematch in last year’s Final Four semifinal, won by the Blue Devils.
Local residents slammed law-enforcement agencies in the days following the 2001 disturbances for letting the furniture-flambe take place. Amid much fanfare, four Maryland students were later indicted for malicious burning, a felony, after a campaign by administrators to get students to snitch on each other. Those charges, however, were dropped before anybody went to trial.
The failure of any of the charges to stick, combined with the sting of the townies’ criticism, probably contributed to the bad attitude the cops had during March Madness. “We’re not playing around,” University Police Maj. Cathy Atwell told the Associated Press, when asked what methods her department would rely on to suppress mob violence. Atwell also disclosed that the campus force would be joined by the Maryland State Police, the Maryland National Capital Park Police, and the Prince George’s County Police, that many of the law-enforcement officers from the bigger departments would be in full riot attire, and that all the cops would be carrying pepper spray. A particularly ominous accessory to the cops’ ensemble was what P.G. County Police Chief Gerald Wilson described as paint-ball guns that were modified to fire pepper-spray pellets a great distance.
Despite past troubles, neither the university nor the local government bothered designating any area for a postgame pep rally after the semifinal with Kansas. According to reports in the Diamondback, the school newspaper, that oversight was made worse when police decided to prohibit pedestrian traffic into the campus’s Fraternity Row—the logical place for students to congregate following the game. So the fans who spilled out of College Park bars wanting to celebrate instead found themselves in a standoff with the officers. And the lawmen were in no mood to party. Soon enough, P.G. County and state police were aiming their red-laser-equipped guns at the youthful crowd and firing round after round of pepper-spray pellets.
Hosing down the fans with water would seem a cheaper, far less violent, and, given the cold temperatures of the early spring night, more effective way to get folks to think about heading home. But law-enforcement agencies, perhaps wary of sparking memories of Bull Connor in Birmingham, refuse to use the fire hose for crowd control anymore.
Instead, it’s all pepper spray, all the time.
Bob Klotz, a former deputy chief of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, says pepper-spray guns and riot gear are all part of a “militarization” of police forces in the U.S. Klotz was a D.C. cop from 1955 to 1980. His last position on the force was heading up special operations, and he was on the job during many of the biggest civil-rights marches and anti-war demonstrations to ever hit the city. Klotz, who has served as a paid expert witness for plaintiffs in police-brutality cases, says he’s pretty sure the new approach isn’t a better one.
“The police have tended to become more militaristic in their appearance and in their training,” says Klotz, not speaking specifically about the College Park situation. “Our policy was always: You go out in your regular uniform, and you present your normal everyday work appearance, so as not to give the impression right away that you’re there for a riot. You don’t want to provoke. But now the approach is to show up for crowd control with these SWAT teams with their black masks and hoods, and pepper spray is the weapon of choice. Police work shouldn’t be an us-vs.-them situation unless the facts and circumstances dictate that.”
The College Park situation was us-vs.-them before the semifinal even ended. And when pepper pellets began flying, not surprisingly, anarchy ensued. Cop cars were smashed and local stores were vandalized. Just as predictably, the shooters quickly became targets of the inflamed mob; one cop was hospitalized after being hit in the head with a brick.
Shopkeepers and revelers blamed the cops’ tactics for the skirmishes.
“I think [the pepper pellets were] instigating us to retaliate…and I think it just makes it worse,” Doris Shim, identified as a recent Maryland graduate and pepper-pellet target, told the Diamondback. Tom Hughes, owner of the Smoothie King on Route 1, told the paper he was mystified by the cops’ strategy, or lack thereof: “If they want them to disperse they should tell them to disperse,” Hughes said. “I’m wondering why they are shooting tear gas if they haven’t told the crowd what to do yet.” Two nights later, after the Terrapins won their first national basketball championship by defeating Indiana, the kids and cops put on a similar violent and senseless display, with pepper spray in the featured role.
There’s no evidence that pepper spray quells college disturbances outside of Maryland, either. After the Ohio State-Michigan game last month, the cops in Columbus, Ohio, set out to save a goal post from students celebrating the Buckeyes’ biggest win in decades. Anybody who came near the end zone risked being doused by cops wielding high-powered pepper-spray dispensers that had the range of a Super Soaker. So the kids left the stadium teary and angry, and tore up a big section of the city.
Pepper spray also fails at the pro-sports level. In September, P.G. County cops stormed into the stands during the Redskins-Eagles game at FedEx Field when a fight broke out in the lower bowl of the stadium. The police ended up pepper spraying not only the combatants and several dozen noncombatants sitting nearby, but many Eagles players, too. None of the brawlers were arrested.
Cpl. Joe Merkel, spokesperson for the P.G. County Police, declines to discuss his department’s tactics during the College Park and FedEx Field disturbances. He does, however, say that P.G. County cops intend to move away from the sorts of pepper sprays used during those melees. “We’re going to a type of pepper foam now,” Merkel says. —Dave McKenna