(en) HEADWATERS/PEPPERSPRAY: Update 19 Nov - Lungren says pepper

Robert Cherwink (rc@vom.com)
Wed, 19 Nov 1997 22:06:53 -0800

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from pressdemo.com Nov. 19, 1997

Lungren says pepper spray use wrong

By MIKE GENIELLA Press Democrat staff writer

A review by the state Attorney General's Office has determined that Humboldt County's controversial use of pepper spray against Earth First! demonstrators violated accepted police practices.

But while Attorney General Dan Lungren deplored Humboldt's tactic of swabbing demonstrators' eyes with the chemical during an Oct. 16 protest in Rep. Frank Riggs' Eureka office, he said use of pepper spray against nonviolent protesters "might be appropriate" in some situations.

Lungren's conclusions came on the heels of a federal judge's refusal on Friday to issue a ban against pepper spray use on nonviolent demonstrators. The judge contended that he was "not in position to substitute his judgment" for trained law enforcement who defend its use.

Lungren's position immediately was condemned Tuesday by attorneys for protesters who filed a lawsuit alleging their civil rights were violated by the pepper spray tactic. Arcata attorney Mark Harris blasted Lungren for "leaving the door open" to future police use of pepper spray against nonviolent demonstrators.

But in a report made public Tuesday, Lungren specifically cited instances in which such use might be appropriate. Lungren, a candidate for governor next year, said as an example nonviolent demonstrators might try to shut down commerce and impact emergency services for long periods of time by blocking a major traffic artery such as the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Should such an incident occur, the application of (pepper spray) may be appropriate as long as accepted application techniques are utilized," said Lungren.

Lungren's Golden Gate Bridge observation appeared to be a veiled reference to an incident earlier this year when Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson created a Bay Area controversy after he scaled the bridge with Earth First! demonstrators during a protest related to Headwaters Forest, the largest tract of ancient redwoods left in private ownership. The action snarled traffic for hours.

As a result of his review of the Humboldt controversy, Lungren said his office will work with local, state and federal law enforcement experts to develop special training to "effectively and safely control passive resisters."

Lungren made his comments in a four-page report to state Sen. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who 10 days ago asked the attorney general to review the Humboldt County incident.

Lungren's staff reviewed all Humboldt County reports, along with more than 2,000 randomly selected reports about past law enforcement use of pepper spray statewide, according to Lungren. The Attorney General's Office also attempted "to no avail" to determine whether the Humboldt tactic ever had been used in other states, he said.

"The review of reports revealed that the use of (pepper spray) as portrayed in the Humboldt County incident is unprecedented," said Lungren.

Thompson on Tuesday applauded Lungren's "courage" for not only declaring the Humboldt tactic unacceptable, but also for committing to more effective law enforcement training to handle cases involving passive protesters.

"He conducted the investigation he was asked to perform. As our state's top law enforcement officer, he's provided us with valuable information. He's given us the facts as they relate to current state policies and unacceptable police procedures," said Thompson.

Thompson said he will use Lungren's findings to help draft proposed legislative remedies. "Now we can move forward in crafting responsible solutions that ensure both the safety of our communities and the constitutional freedoms of all Californians," he said.

Humboldt County authorities declined Tuesday to comment on Lungren's findings. But one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the report was "obviously laced with politics. We were trying to do what he says he wants to do -- come up with an effective and safe way to deal with increasingly sophisticated tactics of protesters."

Aides to Riggs, R-Windsor, said the congressman had not yet seen Lungren's report."He may have some comment after reading it," said aide Mike Donohue.

Riggs has been at the center of a political brouhaha over his strong defense of Humboldt County authorities and his denunciation of Earth First! protesters as dangerous radicals.

Thompson has announced he will challenge Riggs next year for the North Coast congressional seat.

The FBI, which is conducting its own investigation into the Humboldt County incident, declined comment Tuesday on Lungren's findings.

FBI spokesman George Grotz said the federal inquiry is continuing and that investigators have discussed some preliminary findings with U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco. He declined to elaborate further.

The FBI inquiry reportedly has been hampered by the refusal of nine protesters involved in three separate pepper spray incidents to agree to be questioned by agents or U.S. attorneys.

Arcata attorney Harris said Tuesday he advised the demonstrators not to talk to federal agents because of criminal actions against them stemming from their occupation of Riggs' Eureka office and the lobby of Pacific Lumber Co. headquarters in nearby Scotia. "There isn't anything they can tell the FBI that isn't shown on the police videotapes," Harris said.

Copyright 1997, The Press Democrat

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