Campus police officers could have avoided using pepper spray to break up a graduation party at the University of Maryland this spring, university president Wallace D. Loh told the campus community on Thursday after a review of the incident, which sparked intense criticism from students and others who said the officers’ response was excessive and racist.

“We don’t often get it wrong,”  said David B. Mitchell, the chief of police of the University of Maryland Department of Public Safety. “We do here.”

He announced the results of a review of the situation at a time of intense debate over race and policing, just days after five officers were gunned down in Dallas and as protests continue around the country over police officers killing black men and boys.

At the state’s flagship university, an officer has been suspended without pay for 80 hours for overall conduct unbecoming an officer in connection with the incident, every officer in the department will get bias and diversity training, and they will review their use of force, Mitchell said.

The use of pepper spray on May 21 to disperse the party fell within the department’s guidelines, but a second round of spraying was done incorrectly, the review concluded. It even hit some officers, Mitchell said.

In the first instance, an officer was surrounded by 10 upset people, one of whom was being restrained by others. In the second, a medic treating people who had been sprayed earlier asked police for help clearing the area as people crowded around, with some trying to calm people and others screaming at police.

But, Mitchell said, “the bottom line is it never should have gotten to this.”

He said officers’ actions didn’t de-escalate the situation as they should have — they escalated it. “Clearly it didn’t help matters whatsoever.”

Charges have been dropped against a student and her brother who were arrested at the scene when they didn’t comply with officers’ orders. And a separate criminal investigation determined that the 911 call that started the incident was false. People who were not U-Md. students made it to retaliate when they weren’t allowed to go into the party, police concluded, and the department has obtained a criminal summons against them. Mitchell said there is Snapchat video of those people celebrating after they disrupted the party.

Mitchell said he apologized to students within days of seeing the video.

University officials met Thursday with some students who had been involved to discuss the findings and show them video. At the students’ request, they delayed public release of the video until next week. After he showed the video, Mitchell said he told the students he felt their pain, and that he was “terribly embarrassed and humiliated by the actions of our officers.”

Lt. Michael Leadbeter, who led the administrative review of the incident, including dozens of interviews and video from the officers’ body-worn cameras and students’ cellphones, showed reporters video of the response to the party ahead of the public release.

Police responded to a 911 call that there was a fight at a party with underage drinking. On their way in, people outside told them that the fight was still going on. When an officer asked if there were weapons, one man answered that he thought there was a bat.

An officer pounded on the door of the apartment and stood to the side, as a precaution. When the door was opened, two young women in party attire for their graduation answered the door with a smile, Mitchell said.

“We did not use very good negotiating techniques to find out whether somebody was injured inside that apartment,” he said of his officers’ actions. “We were yelling, we were demanding.

“These two gals and their friends, they had no idea what we’re talking about.”

In the video, one officer, who is white, insists that they need to go inside the apartment. The students are initially polite but reluctant to let the officers inside. The scene becomes more and more confrontational, with some students upset and others trying to calm things down.

While some were leaving the party, others surrounded an officer outside the door, leading some officers to think he might be in danger.

When officers begin spraying, the scene is intense, with people screaming and crying out in pain. A woman who was arrested asks why, and asks if officers were going to read her her rights. An officer responds they don’t have to because they aren’t asking her questions.

Responding to concerns about race, Mitchell said, “It’s up to us to do better in American law enforcement and certainly in my department here. While we didn’t uncover specifically that this was racially motivated,” he said, he understands that students at the party, which was predominantly attended by black students, believe that it was.

“And perception is reality.  So I agree that this is a problem for us and law enforcement with regard to trust.”

Katherine Swanson, the president of the student government at U-Md., said Thursday evening that while some people are still thinking about the news, she has heard from many students who feel it’s “a sign of a larger problem in our community …  something we need to work on. They don’t want this to be forgotten, and this time next week no one is talking about it.

“They want a better relationship with police — one that doesn’t require an investigation.”

Swanson hasn’t heard from anyone supporting the police response. “People are alarmed by it.”

After an intense reaction on social media, and meetings between students and school officials soon after the incident, Loh promised a thorough and transparent investigation and said he understood the concerns being expressed.

“This is a charged time in our nation,” Loh wrote in his letter to the campus community Thursday. “As a society, we must find a path forward to come together. I deeply regret the incident at The Courtyards, but I believe that the actions by Chief Mitchell and UMPD are important steps on our campus to bridge chasms, salve anguish and anger, and promote justice.”

Here is Loh’s letter in full:

Dear University of Maryland community,

I am writing to inform you of the results of the University of Maryland Police Department’s (UMPD) investigation of its response to a 911 call about an on-campus party at The Courtyards on May 21, 2016.

At 1:46 AM, two officers arrived at an apartment where a graduation party was underway with about 60 people present, mostly African Americans. The callers had reported a potential fight, someone with a bat, and underage drinking. When the police arrived, they were again told by persons at the parking lot that there could be fighting in the apartment.

Subsequently, to control and disperse the party crowd, UMPD officers deployed pepper spray twice, first in a breezeway outside the apartment, later in the parking lot. Two individuals (one a UMD student) were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and failing to obey lawful orders. In response to calls for back-up support, eventually some 15 officers plus Fire Department medics were at the scene.

UMPD policy requires an administrative review after any use of force. Therefore, UMPD conducted a comprehensive, five-week investigation with due diligence and due process. Investigators interviewed witnesses and studied video recordings from officers’ body cameras. Chief David Mitchell’s summary report of the findings, conclusions, and actions are at http://umpdnews.umd.edu/node/646. Chief Mitchell met with some of the affected individuals today. At their request, the video footage will be released to the media on Monday, to give the students time to discuss with friends and family.

The main finding is that deployment of pepper spray, while justified under the circumstances, could have been avoided if the police, upon arrival at the apartment, had been more tactful and professional, as prescribed by UMPD policy.

When the police knocked on the door, those who opened it appeared surprised by the claim of a possible fight inside. They denied there was any fight. The antagonistic approach of the police in this initial encounter, and the demand for a break-up of the party, led to an escalation of tensions. The ensuing resistance and non-compliant conduct by some party attendees resulted eventually in the deployment of pepper spray.

The investigation found that the first use of pepper spray in the breezeway was justified because an officer was surrounded by some 10 agitated party attendees, one of whom was being restrained by others from lunging at the officer.

The second use of pepper spray at the parking lot was also deemed justified. It was an uncontrolled scene, with some people screaming at the police, others assisting the police to maintain calm, and a medic calling for help to clear the crowd. However, the manner of deployment violated UMPD policy.

Further, the investigation found that the 911 call was a false report. Individuals (not UMD students) who were denied entry to the party retaliated by calling the police with a fabricated story of a possible fight.

As a result of these findings, Chief Mitchell (1) obtained criminal charge summons against those who made the false report of a fight; (2) suspended an officer without pay for two weeks for violating UMPD policies; (3) announced training in cultural diversity and implicit bias for all UMPD personnel, conducted by outside experts; and (4) ordered a review of UMPD’s policies and protocols on the use of force, with input from members of the UMD community (including student leaders) and criminal justice professionals. In addition, the charges against the two persons arrested in the incident were dropped.

I applaud Chief Mitchell for his transparency, accountability, and decisiveness. The men and women of UMPD are an integral and valued part of our campus community. They are dedicated guardians, sworn to serve and protect. All of us respect and appreciate the difficult work they do, the sacrifices they make in the line of duty. We owe them our support. In turn, they recognize that “community policing,” not “confrontational policing,” is essential to building trust between the police and the policed.

I thank the students involved in this incident who cooperated with the investigation. The staffs of the Nyumburu Cultural Center, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Division of Student Affairs have been invaluable resources for all involved.

This is a charged time in our nation. As a society, we must find a path forward to come together. I deeply regret the incident at The Courtyards, but I believe that the actions by Chief Mitchell and UMPD are important steps on our campus to bridge chasms, salve anguish and anger, and promote justice.

Sincerely,

Wallace D. Loh
President

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