SALT LAKE CITY — Two police officers were cleared of wrongdoing Thursday for using pepper spray and a baton on a dozen spectators performing a traditional Polynesian war dance after a Utah high school's losing football game.
Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas found that the two officers were justified in taking action because they feared a riot and because they were unfamiliar with the Haka war dance, which is a fan response popular at rugby matches and football games in other countries.
The October incident was caught on a blurry cellphone video, which was posted on YouTube and has logged 1.8 million views. The footage shows police pushing back the dancers at a high school in Roosevelt, about 140 miles east of Salt Lake City.
Thomas called the pepper spray and baton appropriate "weapons" used by Roosevelt officers to clear a stadium exit that the dancers were blocking. They repeatedly ignored police commands to "make a hole" but they believed their routine had the tacit approval of school officials and football fans, he said.
"Therefore, I do not believe the performers 'recklessly' caused a public inconvenience," he said.
In his 21-page opinion, Thomas found that "the officers did not use unlawful force. Therefore, the officers cannot be charged with criminal assault."
His finding supported the results of an internal police investigation, which also said the officers' actions were justified. Thomas has said he opened his probe at the request of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which disputed his conclusions and noted that his second-by-second analysis of the YouTube video shows police used force only 17 seconds after making their first command.
Tensions were high on Oct. 20 between rival high schools in Vernal and Roosevelt, each winless before their final game of the football season.
"There is a long history of rival conduct which includes occasional skirmishes during sporting events, occasional vandalism and lots of bravado from athletes and fans of both schools," Thomas wrote.
The Vernal high school won the game over a disputed call. A touchdown by the Roosevelt team had been reversed and their fans were heckling referees, he said.
To cheer the Roosevelt team after the loss, the spectators adopted a wide stance, folded their arms and chanted in unison. The two officers have said they were unaware the crowd was performing a Maori war dance that has long been tradition in New Zealand rugby games.
It has more recently spread to at least a dozen U.S. high school football teams, especially those with large numbers of Polynesians.
Officer Luke Stradinger, who deployed the pepper spray, said in a police report that he "never seen such an event, or even heard of such a thing." The police department and the Utah Highway Patrol were working crowd control at the game.
Officer Wade Butterfield, who used a baton to disperse the group, said he became worried about unsportsmanlike conduct by fans during the game and said some were yelling obscenities.
"I have seen a riot firsthand and know how dangerous they can be in an instant," Butterfield said in the report. "No more force was used than was necessary to defuse the situation."
Joe Cohn, interim legal director for the ACLU of Utah, disagreed with that assessment and the county attorney's finding. "Force is lawful only when it's justified, and not for disobedience to orders — it's for officers who believe they face an immediate threat of danger. There's nothing in this report or investigation that indicates anyone was in any danger," he said.