As part of the basic social contract, we as a society have given the police the awesome responsibility of protecting public safety by having a monopoly on the legal use of force. We do not provide police this awesome power because we think society would be better off if a special group of sadists could go around torturing any regular citizens they want without fear of repercussions.
The police are given this power and responsibility because there are some people determined to use violence against others. Sometimes selective, legal use of force by authorized law enforcement is the only way to stop those who would harm others.
While police are the special set of individuals modern societies have legally empowered to use violence to maintain peace, that empowerment is only to prevent individuals from using violence against others. Under our Constitution, the empowerment laws are not intended to give police carte blanche authority to use violence against individuals who pose no threat or harm to anyone. For law enforcement to use violence outside these specific conditions is itself a crime.
That is what appears to have happened at UC Davis, according to numerous videos and eye witness accounts, though all are legally presumed innocent until proven guilty.
What the videos and accounts describe appears to be an unlawful act of aggressive and brutal violence against individuals who posed zero danger. That would make it an assault. And since the victims were essentially under police control, and the pepper spraying extremely painful, the actions seem little different from an act of torture against a detainee. What we see is an apparent criminal act, and even worse, we see an egregious abuse of the special authority society grants law enforcement.
Why did these police officers assault these individuals with no apparent justification? It appears it was only to stop citizens from exercising their basic constitutional right of freedom of assembly. It was an act to torture them if they continued trying to exercise their rights. And whether that was the intent or not, it could make these victims and others afraid of ever trying to exercise their legal rights again.
That is why I demand the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division launch an investigation into this incident. This is exactly the type of crime — authority using violence to stop people from exercising their basic constitutional rights — that the Civil Rights Division was created to stop. It is important not just to get justice for this event, but to send a clear message to law enforcement throughout the country that such violations of rights will not be tolerated by the federal government.
This behavior simply cannot be allowed to stand. If this clearly documented, widely seen, and high profile abuse of constitutional rights is not dealt with aggressively, it will send a damning message: police can ignore and violate the Constitutional rights of regular Americans with impunity.