by John Arnold

The use of pepper spray on passively resisting protesters by North Coast law enforcement was just wrong. It's a classic example of the Type IV Error: Doing with absolute precision absolutely the wrong thing.

Now I like Chief Arnie Millsap. I appointed him chief. I like Sheriff Dennis Lewis. Both are good men trying to do a good job. But they were still wrong.

Pepper spray, of course, replaced Mace, which replaced chokeholds and other physical force, which replaced the club, which replaced the gun as the acceptable means of subduing those threatening a police officer. None of those were ever acceptable to be used on passive resisters.

Bull Conner in Selma used high pressure spray from fire hoses, remember? Some of his cops used links of rubber hose more directly.

Since then -- really before, but certainly since then -- the principle has been well articulated: A law enforcement officer is not allowed to mete out punishment. No matter the crime, the police officer is the arresting officer only, not judge, jury or executioner. Over and over again court cases have made the point: Anything that looks like, smells like or feels like punishment is wrongful behavior on the part of the law enforcement officer.

The police chief and sheriff and even the congressman, whose office was invaded by the demonstrators, have blamed the problem on the media for not showing what the demonstrators did before -- frightening his staff.

Remember guys, it doesn't matter. Child molesters under arrest are not allowed to be put in pain by an officer. Killers aren't. Wife abusers aren't. The crime does not matter. Cops don't punish.

Local officials are now in full denial and that's not unusual. The first training of a police officer is to respond to "Officer down!" -- to get there, lend support as necessary and protect the officer. It's important.

But that training also leads to a mind-set that verbal abuse of one officer gets a similar protective response. So does criticism. The police professional's response to criticism of his department is to circle the wagons because "those on the outside of the circle don't understand." (The congressman is also a former cop with seven years experience.)

The elected officials in the city and county are sticking behind the chief and the sheriff. But remember, two of the five Eureka City Council members are former Eureka cops, one is currently an investigator with the District Attorney's office, another's a former game warden and logger. And the chair of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is married to the district attorney.

The sheriff said the DA was consulted on the procedure. To say there is a bias potential is an understatement. There is a lot of support for the police position primarily because there is a lot of opposition to the outsiders coming in and protesting old-growth logging.

The parallel to integration and sit-ins in the south in the '60s is direct. Lack of sympathy for the position of the protesters is not license to change the role of the police. Nor is the fact the protesters weren't born in the area or weren't loggers at some time in their past.

The police and sheriff argued that the only option to pepper spray was to use a grinder to remove the steel sleeves, but they couldn't because of fire danger.

Not so. Vacuum up the wood chips and grind away.

And there were other options. They were four small women and they could have been carried out. Or better yet, let them sit there. How long before they had to go to the bathroom? A couple of hours? Smile at them. Order in pizza. Eat in front of them. It won't be long. Or -- turn out the lights, lock the doors and leave them there. Incarceration of their own making.

Eureka police have a SWAT team trained to negotiate first, use force as a last option. Part of that process is to wait. It's been done a half-dozen times or so here successfully, to my personal knowledge.

In Illinois a 30-day wait for a disturbed woman yielded a capture without violence, without harm. In Eureka, a mentally disturbed man, who wrote threatening letters to most officials, and frightened those who lived and worked nearby, was watched for two years by the police, waiting for an opportunity that would avoid violence, when he was finally captured -- without pain to him or others.

The decision to use pepper spray was not a matter of not knowing what to do or how to do it. They just made a mistake and, having circled the wagons and gotten the support of like-minded elected officials, are stone-walling it and looking the worse for it.

As Mike Royko said of the White House staff as they tried to cover up Watergate a generation ago, "You would think that just one of those transom-climbers would say, 'Hey, this is wrong.'"

By coincidence, this past July I was selected as a juror in federal district court in San Francisco on a civil rights case involving assault, negligence and violation of civil rights against two San Francisco cops for their actions in an event and against the city and county of San Francisco for negligence. At the end of two days of deliberation the jury acquitted the cops but found against the city and county largely for not providing better training.

Knowing now how the instructions come from the judge on such cases and what the jury has to consider to meet the tests, this is a slam-dunk civil rights case. In this country we have a principle of civilian control of the military. The police are paramilitary and must always be subordinate to the elected officials and good public policy.

Local elected officials need to provide leadership. Admitting a mistake and correcting it also increases the credibility of the government.

After this much time, it would also help to apologize.

John E. Arnold, who served as Eureka City Manager from 1992-95, writes and consults from his home overlooking the entrance to Humboldt Bay. Just before he was fired, Arnold wrote a book published by the professional city managers' association, called The Fallback Position, a humorous look at the firing of city managers.

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