Justice Department asked to investigate pepper spraying of Haka dancers after football game

Published: Monday, Dec. 12 2011 9:40 p.m. MST

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

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FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — Add the leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe to the list of people who are upset about the use of pepper spray on a group of performers after a high school football game.

Last week the ACLU of Utah called for an independent probe of the October incident that took place after the Union High-Uintah High football game in Roosevelt. Now Ute tribal leaders want federal authorities to launch a civil rights investigation as well.

"A real and genuine investigation by the United States Department of Justice is now (in) order," the tribe's governing Business Committee said in a prepared statement.

"These are not random or unusual incidents, but an ongoing pattern of civil rights violations that must be halted," the Business Committee said.

The Union Cougars had just lost their final game of a winless season at home on Oct. 20 when a group of their fans decided to try to boost their morale. The group — roughly 20 Polynesian men and boys — crowded into the exit from the field and began to perform the Haka, a traditional Maori war chant that involves feirce facial expressions and swinging arms.

Two Roosevelt police officers working security at the game said they wanted to clear the exit the men were blocking, and feared there might be a riot. The officers waded into the crowd with pepper spray and a police baton after giving two quick orders to "make a hole."

Several bystanders were hit with pepper spray, including children as young as 4-years-old.

An internal investigation conducted by Roosevelt Police Chief Rick Harrison cleared his officers of any violations of state law or department policy.

"The treatment that the (Polynesians) received is similar to what our members go through," Ute Tribe Chairwoman Irene Cuch told the Deseret News on Monday.

Officers with all non-tribal law enforcement agencies in Duchesne and Uintah counties subject tribal members to "harassment and mostly being beaten; using excessive force," Cuch said.

Harrison declined to offer comment Monday on the tribe’s allegations of widespread abuse. But Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Mitchell said he’s seen nothing to support the claims.

"To date we haven't had anything from the tribe, nor do I have any indication that our officers are doing anything that they shouldn't be," Mitchell said.

No sheriff's deputies were involved in the pepper spray incident at Union High. 

Mitchell believes the tribe’s claims of harassment are nothing more than a longstanding disagreement over who has law enforcement jurisdiction in certain parts of the Uintah Basin based on congressional action and court rulings.

"We respect the tribe’s sovereignty on their land and the officers have been trained where that land is," the sheriff said. "If they’re dealing with tribal members on that land, then they have to contact a (Bureau of Indian Affairs) officer to come and take over.

"The courts have specified where we have jurisdiction and within our jurisdictional areas we'll operate as the courts have described, and we'll handle people — no matter who they are — in a professional, courteous manner," Mitchell added.

FBI spokeswoman Debbie Dujanovic said the bureau would not be offering comment on the tribe's request for a civil rights investigation. The FBI is willing to take a complaint from anyone who believes their rights were violated by law enforcement, she said. Those complaints can be made by calling any of the bureau's offices or visiting its website, www.fbi.gov.

Cuch acknowledged that the tribal leaders are seeking to highlight their concerns by capitalizing on the global reaction to the Haka incident.

"They got worldwide publicity on this," she said. "Our people have taken abuse as well, but haven’t received wide public attention. We hope to see some changes in the attitude of local law enforcement."

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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