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Investigation finds officers justified in pepper spray incident

By Geoff Liesik | Posted - Nov. 2, 2011 at 7:39 p.m.

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ROOSEVELT — The city’s police chief has concluded that two of his officers were justified in using pepper spray and a baton on Polynesian men and boys performing a traditional chant after a high school football game.

Chief Rick Harrison found that, while the officers could have used alternative means to clear the group out of the exit from Union High School’s football field on Oct. 20, “the totality of the circumstances that evening suggest that the officers reacted within departmental policy and in compliance with state law.”

The Union Cougars had just lost a tight game to their rivals, the Uintah Utes, and were exiting the field when members of one player’s family decided to honor the team with an impromptu Haka. The group crowded into a 9-foot opening in the fence and began the fierce traditional war chant frequently performed prior to rugby and football games in Utah.

Roosevelt Police Chief Rick Harrison found that ... "the totality of the circumstances that evening suggest that the officers reacted within departmental policy and in compliance with state law."

Two Roosevelt officers posted near the opening shouted twice at the group to, “Make a hole!” Then, despite protests from fans and players to let the group finish their performance, the officers deployed pepper spray. One officer also used a police baton to strike some of the performers.

“The next thing I know people are screaming; people are running. There was pandemonium,” said Jill Mortensen, who was at the game with her husband and their young grandchildren.

Mortensen and her grandchildren were exposed to pepper spray, as were at least a dozen other bystanders.

“People are bent over; people are on the ground,” she said, describing the scene. “My grandson is screaming; I can’t see. … It was a crowd of families.”

Mortensen was appalled to learn that the internal investigation conducted by Harrison had concluded that the officers had acted within policy.

“I’d like to see their policy or law that says when you deploy pepper spray in the middle of a crowd with little children there,” she said Wednesday. “I’d like to see that.”

Roosevelt Mayor Vaun Ryan said city leaders are confident the police department conducted a full and fair investigation of the incident. The police chief’s recommendation that officers undergo cultural awareness training and that department policy be reviewed are appropriate remedies, Ryan said.

“Although there was a very unfortunate incident that took place, we feel like the proper action is being taken,” the mayor said.

Anyone who was directly affected by the incident can ask the city manager to have Roosevelt’s citizen review board take a look at the police investigation and offer its own opinion, Ryan said. But that’s all the board can offer — an opinion.

“It’s not a binding legal decision by them,” Ryan said.

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