U.Md. police: Use of pepper spray at party could have been avoided

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The University of Maryland’s Police Department has concluded its investigation into the use of pepper spray by officers at a graduation party on May 21. The findings have resulted in apologies to the students involved and the suspension of a police officer.

“We don’t often get it wrong; mostly we get it right, this is not one of those cases,” said UMD Police Chief David Mitchell.

During the incident, officers arrived at the Courtyards Apartments off University Boulevard in College Park after a 911 call came in about a possible fight at the party involving weapons. At the scene, police discovered that there was no fight but due to the size of the party, responding officers determined that the graduation get-together should be broken up.

According to the report released by police, some party-goers left willingly, some did not. The first use of pepper spray was by two officers who found themselves surrounded by party attendees. The second involved an officer spraying a person he thought was acting uncooperative with another officer.

All instances were deemed justifiable but investigators found that on the second occasion, the officer violated the school’s policies when it came to the manner of deployment of pepper spray. That officer was suspended for two weeks without pay.

“We didn’t handle the call right to begin with: We didn’t de-escalate the situation, we escalated the situation,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said his officers should have used more diplomacy from the beginning of the call and said he has apologized to the students involved from the party, which was primarily made up of African-Americans.

“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,” UMD’s President Wallace Loh said in a statement.

Mitchell said the school is reviewing its use of force policies and will retrain officers on pepper spray use based on the results of the review.

“Here’s the bottom line: It should not have come to the use of pepper spray whatsoever,” Mitchell said.

The initial call about a fight, which sent police to the apartment complex, was discovered to have been made by someone who wasn’t allowed into the party. That person now faces criminal charges for making a false report to 911.

Body camera footage was used by the school to review the case and some of that footage is expected to be released to the public on Monday.

Matthew Delaney

Matt Delaney is a digital web writer/editor who joined WTOP in 2020.

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