UMD police chief: 'Embarrassed by actions' of officers after use of pepper spray at graduation party

- University of Maryland's police chief said he is humiliated by the way officers treated students when they responded to a graduation party in May and ended up using pepper spray twice.

Chief David Mitchell said he apologized to some of the students involved when he met with them Thursday.

"First of all, I feel pain as I did the morning I saw the video, and secondly, I'm terribly embarrassed and humiliated by the actions of our officers," Mitchell said. "It shouldn't have happened this way. We don't often get it wrong, but we did here. And I am accountable as chief of police, and I'm holding the officers accountable."

Students at the party at The Courtyards Apartments captured some of the police response on cell phone video. They alleged excessive force was used because it was predominantly black students at the party.

The incident started when police got two 911 calls reporting there was a fight at the party involving weapons. Mitchell said Thursday that an investigation showed the people who made the calls were angry they couldn't get into the party. They are now facing false reporting charges.

About 30 minutes of officers' body camera footage was made available to reporters. The footage showed two officers knocking on the door of the apartment, and two African-American students respectfully responding, saying they were holding a graduation celebration and there was no fight.

The situation quickly escalated when one of the officers began yelling and demanded to be let inside.

"We responded to a call that could have easily been handled using de-escalation techniques that were not used and it escalated," Mitchell said. "Once we get to the door, and we're met by two students who are smiling and address us as 'sir,' and are little hesitant about letting us inside. That's where we use negotiating skills to say, 'Hey, we can't go away until we look inside and make sure no one is hurt.'”

The body camera footage shows the ensuing chaos. An officer pepper sprayed students when they reportedly surrounded him in the apartment building hallway.

Then in a second incident, police said an officer "witnessed another officer struggling with an individual who was being uncooperative." The officer again used pepper spray and then arrested the individual thought to have been involved in the struggle.

It was later discovered the wrong person was arrested and the individual was released.

An internal investigation into the overall police response resulted in the officer who deployed the pepper spray being suspended without pay for two weeks, Mitchell said. He said it is possible other officers could be disciplined as well.

Charges have been dropped against two young adults arrested during the incident.

Mitchell said the investigation did not show officers were targeting students because of their race, as they were responding to what they thought were legitimate 911 calls. However, he did say he understands why students feel race was a factor.

"I feel their pain," he said. "It's up to us to do better in American law enforcement and certainly in my department."

He said he is evaluating the department's policy on use of pepper spray and mandating new training.

"We will be engaging to train the entire department in what's called 'hidden bias,'" he said. "Those are those biases that we all have; how to better be able to recognize those."

Mitchell said officers' body camera footage viewed by FOX 5 will be made public Monday. He said students have requested more time before it's released.

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