Chemical agents like pepper spray have become a popular weapon at recent rallies. Photo: Daniel McPartlan

Berkeley police are asking city officials to overturn a 1997 rule against the use of pepper spray during demonstrations in the face of increasingly coordinated, masked crowds that have sometimes sought confrontation with officers this year.

The Berkeley City Council has called for a special meeting Tuesday at 3 p.m. to discuss the issue and consider whether to give police that option. The special meeting has been called as UC Berkeley is preparing to host talk show host Ben Shapiro on Thursday. Though the event is taking place on campus, Berkeley police officers could be called in to help, and to address issues that spill over onto Berkeley streets.

Police in Berkeley are allowed to use pepper spray to handle unruly arrests, though they are required to fill out a form, which is posted on the city website, each time it is used. In 1997, council made it clear, however, that “no pepper spray will be used for crowd control by the Berkeley Police Department.” Council policy limits other types of common law enforcement tools and resources, too, from dogs and helicopters — which must be borrowed from other agencies and can only be used in specific situations — to tear gas and Tasers.

In the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting, Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood wrote that pepper spray would give officers an intermediary tool to use in a targeted way if the need arises. Officers on a skirmish line may currently have batons and “less lethal” rounds (which include foam or plastic projectiles), or canisters of smoke or tear gas — which can have broader impacts on the rest of the community, including innocent bystanders.

“The availability of pepper spray as a force option to use against specific violent offenders in a crowd situation would allow for more safety for officers and the public, and increase the likelihood of apprehension and criminal prosecution of suspects, while reducing the potential for injuries to suspects and officers,” Greenwood wrote.

In the staff report, Greenwood said police are working to find ways to keep officers safe, particularly as shields have become more commonly used in demonstrations. Shields can be used defensively, but they can also be used offensively, as weapons themselves, to chop or ram, for example. Pepper spray would let officers direct force on a specific target with little or no collateral harm, according to the report.

Antifa marching, Rally Against Hate, Aug. 27, 2017. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Rally in Berkeley on Aug. 27, 2017 Photo: Kelly Sullivan
Milo protest. Photo: Pete Rosos

Much of the public safety concern from officials and authorities dates back to Feb. 1 when police said 150 masked extremists intent on stopping Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley set fires, damaged property and reportedly shot commercial-grade fireworks at officers. An estimated $600,000 worth of damage was done on campus and in downtown Berkeley, and several people were hurt.

According to Greenwood’s staff report, “over a hundred masked extremists approached the campus, attacked police with fireworks and explosives, physically assaulted people in the area, vandalized, destroyed property, set multiple fires and threw a lit flare into a downtown bank.” Then, April 15, “dozens of masked extremists entered Civic Center Park during an otherwise peaceful event, and ultimately attacked others in the park, as well as police officers, using a variety of weapons including chemical irritant sprays, explosive quarter sticks of dynamite known as ‘M-80s’, sticks, bats, bike locks, and wooden shields. An improvised explosive device was also recovered in the park.” Six people were injured Aug. 27 during rallies in Berkeley, and at least two required treatment at the hospital.

The city says it has spent more than $333,000 this year on staffing costs related to demonstrations March 4, April 15 and April 27. Greenwood wrote in the staff report that those events, along with Feb. 1, resulted in “significant injuries to both civilians and police officers.”

Costs for the rallies Aug. 27 have not been calculated, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said this week. (Update, Sept. 11: Chakko estimates the total costs including Aug. 27 are likely to be about $500,000.)

In the staff report, Greenwood described pepper spray as a standard tool used by law enforcement all over the country, in places such as Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

“We need this tool in order to avoid greater levels of force, and to reduce potential harms to uninvolved people who might be nearby,” he said Friday.

According to the staff report, police officers in Berkeley carry individual-sized pepper spray canisters on their belts. But they don’t use it very often. They “used pepper spray an average of 3 times a year since 2012, a period during which Berkeley officers handled hundreds of thousands of calls, and made tens of thousands of arrests and citations.”

Shields used during the Aug. 27 rallies in Berkeley. Photo: BPD
A shield used during the Aug. 27 rallies in Berkeley. Photo: BPD
A shield used during the Aug. 27 rallies in Berkeley. Photo: BPD
Items confiscated during the Aug. 27 rallies in Berkeley. Photo: BPD
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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...