Officer who pepper-sprayed Roosevelt football fans apologizes

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ROOSEVELT — A police officer who pepper sprayed a group performing a traditional Maori war chant after a high school football game included an apology in his written explanation of his decision.

"I sincerely apologize to every innocent bystander who may have been affected by the event that took place as a result of my actions," Roosevelt police officer Luke Stradinger wrote about the Oct. 20 incident.

"I would never intend to cause any discomfort to anyone in the course of my duties," he added.

Stradinger's "use of force narrative" was included in a number of documents released by the Roosevelt Police Department in response to a public records request. The documents include a dozen witness statements and a report by Wade Butterfield, the other police officer on duty at the annual rivalry game between Union and Uintah high schools.

Stradinger and Butterfield work part-time for the police department, but each have more than a decade of experience as law enforcement officers. They both reported that a group of Polynesian fans had crowded around the exit from the football field at the end of the game, preventing people from leaving.

The group was "yelling obscenities at the refs, exhibiting some poor sportsmanship, and doing some aggressive posturing," Butterfield wrote, adding that he believed he and Stradinger were facing a possible riot situation.

"I have seen a riot firsthand and know how dangerous they can be in an instant," Butterfield wrote. "At the time I perceived the actions of these individuals as aggressive and threatening. I had no idea that (their) blockage of the exit was for any other reason than to riot."

The group had crowded the exit to perform the Haka — a traditional Maori war chant commonly performed before football and rugby games throughout Utah — as a show of support for Union's players. The team had just lost the final game of a winless season in the last minute of the game.

But Stradinger, in his report, said he didn't know what the Haka was.

"I have never seen such an event, or even heard of such a thing," he wrote.

Stradinger and Butterfield wrote that they viewed the chest slapping, shouting and fearsome facial expressions of the Haka performers as a threat to themselves and others. After two or three quickly shouted orders for the group to "make a hole," Stradinger deployed his pepper spray into the crowd and Butterfield pulled out his baton and struck one of the performers two or three times.

"At the time and after the event I feel that no more force was used than was necessary to defuse the situation," wrote Butterfield, who was hit with something in the face under the right eye, a police report states.

Many of the people standing near the exit, including elderly fans and children as young as 4 years old, were affected by the pepper spray. Ambulances were called to the football field and emergency medical crews decontaminated several people at the scene.

No arrests were made.

An internal investigation by the police department found that both officers "reacted within departmental policy and in compliance with state law." It also found that the situation could have been avoided if the Polynesian fans had informed the officers that they intended to perform the Haka, or picked a more suitable location for the performance.

As a result of the incident, cultural diversity training was mandated for all of the department's officers, including part-time officers. Stradinger and Butterfield were also required to attend training on "decision making under stressful circumstances," the police department said.

Some of the Haka performers have retained attorney T. Laura Lui, who said last week that the group intends to sue Roosevelt police.

"Clearly, police officers are taxed with a difficult duty," Lui said. "Keeping the peace is not an easy job, but that does not mean that law enforcers can abuse their authority and cause injury in the process."

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Geoff Liesik


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