Police: Use of pepper spray at party could have been avoided

AP News
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Posted: Jul 15, 2016 4:45 PM

BALTIMORE (AP) — The University of Maryland's police chief apologized and said an officer has been "severely disciplined" for using pepper spray on a student at an off-campus graduation party attended primarily by African-American students.

Police were called to the party at the Courtyards apartments near the College Park campus May 22 in response to a possible fight involving weapons.

The party was peaceful and officers were wrong in taking an aggressive approach in breaking it up for overcrowding, police chief David Mitchell said in a statement Thursday.

"The antagonistic approach of the police in this initial encounter, and the demand for a break-up of the party, led to an escalation of tensions," University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh said in a statement.

When some students refused to leave, Mitchell said officers were justified in deploying pepper spray because they were surrounded. But he said an officer erred in later using the device on the wrong student near where others were being treated by emergency medical technicians.

Videos from the scene were shared widely on social media and sparked accusations of racial bias.

The unidentified officer has been suspended for 80 hours without pay, Mitchell said.

"I'm terribly embarrassed and humiliated by the actions of our officers," he said. "We don't get it wrong too often, but we got it wrong here."

Authorities now believe the 911 call that prompted the police visit was false and had come from students who had been denied entry to the party. Police are pursuing charges against those who made the call.

"This is a charged time in our nation," Loh wrote in a message to the campus Thursday. "As a society, we must find a path forward to come together. I deeply regret the incident at The Courtyards, but I believe that the actions by Chief Mitchell and UMPD are important steps on our campus to bridge chasms, salve anguish and anger, and promote justice."

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This story has been corrected to show that police chief David Mitchell did not use the words "antagonistic approach" to describe the officers' actions. Those words came from University of Maryland President Wallace Loh.