VERNAL — The conduct of two Roosevelt police officers who used pepper spray and a baton on a group performing the Haka after a high school football game is now the subject of an independent investigation by Uintah County prosecutors.
Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas told the Deseret News he has opened the probe at the request of the ACLU of Utah.
"I believe that, just as if it was any other individual or citizen who came with a complaint, we would examine it," Thomas said. "In this case, it had already gone through law enforcement, so that would be the first step before we reviewed it."
Part-time Roosevelt police officers Luke Stradinger and Wade Butterfield were cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal police department investigation into their actions.
On Oct. 20, Stradinger and Butterfield were the only officers on duty at the rivalry football game between Union and Uintah high schools. After Union lost by a field goal in the closing minute, a group of Polynesian fans decided to try to boost the team's spirits as the players left the field.
The fans crowded into the exit from the field and began performing the Haka — a traditional Maori war chant that is performed prior to football and rugby games throughout Utah. One of the officers gave two commands to "make a hole" and then deployed pepper spray into the crowd of men, women and children.
Butterfield also used his police baton to strike at least one Haka performer.
"I have seen a riot firsthand and know how dangerous they can be in an instant," Butterfield wrote in his report on the incident.
"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," he added.
No arrests were made that night, and no one in the crowd has been charged with a crime.
The ACLU of Utah called the police department's internal investigation "anything but objective," noting that the final report failed to analyze any of the 15 witness statements submitted to police or acknowledge the existence of a smartphone video of the incident.
"The report rubber-stamped the self-serving accounts of the two officers involved," the civil rights group claimed.
The ACLU called on Duchesne County Attorney Stephen Foote to launch an independent probe of the incident. Foote, however, declined because the Union High football field is in Uintah County and therefore outside his jurisdiction.
The group redirected its request to Thomas' office, and the veteran prosecutor agreed to honor it.
"We (will) look at it under state statute to see if there would be any criminal charges as a result of the level of force used," Thomas said.
The actions of the two officers are not the only thing prosecutors will look at when considering possible criminal charges, Thomas said. Some of the Haka performers may also find themselves in trouble with the law.
"For us to do a thorough investigation, we have to look at everything and determine whether there was an appropriate charge under any circumstance," Thomas said.
Roosevelt Police Chief Rick Harrison, in an email to the Deseret News, said city officials look forward to the outcome of the Uintah County investigation.
"We are confident our departmental review and conclusions of this incident were both thorough and factually based," Harrison wrote.
Thomas declined to provide a timeline for when his investigation might be complete.
"I want to make sure whatever review is done is thorough and complete," he said. "We'll be moving on it as quickly as we can."
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