ACLU responds to post-game pepper spray incident

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 25 2011 6:57 p.m. MDT

Police try to break up the crowd at Union High School in Roosevelt , Utah Thursday night, Oct. 20, 2011.

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ROOSEVELT — City officials are still getting calls and emails from around the globe as police continue to look into what went wrong after a high school football game last week.

It was billed as the Basin Bowl — a Thursday night match up between Union and Uintah high schools — two rival teams that hadn't won a game all season. And while the play on the field was exciting, it's what happened after the game that has people around the world focused on Roosevelt.

Fans had crowded around a 9-foot opening in the fence that borders the field, when a group of 10 to 15 Polynesian men and boys filled up the space and began to perform the Haka, a fierce tribal war chant commonly seen before football and rugby games in Utah. It was meant as a show of support for the Union team, which had just lost to Uintah, 17-14.

But the group didn’t tell police about their plans and at least one officer responded to the blocked exit by using pepper spray and a police baton on members of the group. Fans, including children as young as 4 years old, were also hit with pepper spray.

People from around the world have been contacting the Roosevelt city offices to share their feelings about what happened, said Roosevelt City Manager Justin Johnson.

"Some feel that the officers have overreacted, based on the video footage that's going around on YouTube," he said. "Others have been supportive of the police department and feel like the affected parties should have responded to the police officers' requests (to move)."

The ACLU of Utah expressed its outrage over the incident in a letter to Roosevelt Police Chief Rick Harrison. 

Joseph Cohn, interim legal director for the ACLU of Utah, said the incident "raises serious questions into the judgment of the officers involved."

"It also raises important questions about the adequacy of the training of the Roosevelt Police Department, generally," Cohn said.

The civil rights group has not taken any complaints from people involved in last week's incident, and is not talking about taking legal action against the police at this time. 

"We're hopeful that what comes out of this is training that is adequate to ensure that this never happens again," Cohn said.

Harrison declined to give an interview Tuesday, but did confirm that no arrests were made after his officers used pepper spray and a baton following last week's game. He also confirmed that an outside agency may be asked to conduct an independent investigation of the incident. A citizens review board could also be asked to weigh in on the case, the chief said.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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