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Review of pepper spray fired at haka dancers again clears officers

Published February 2, 2012 9:05 pm

Roosevelt • The ACLU wants officers who sprayed haka dancers charged with assault.
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No one, including the police officers involved, will be charged with crimes stemming from an episode last year where officers doused haka dancers with pepper spray after a football game in Roosevelt.

Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas on Thursday issued a 21-page opinion — an unusual step for a Utah prosecutor — stating there was insufficient evidence to find that either the dancers or the officers committed a crime.

"Witnesses and participants of the event each experienced the events having come from a different background or experiences," Thomas wrote. "This appears to have colored what they perceived and may account for some of the differences."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah disagreed with the decision. Its interim legal director, Joe Cohn, said the report showed the officers should be charged with assault.

Cohn pointed to a statement attributed to Officer Luke Stradinger saying he fired the pepper spray after dancers ignored his command to "Make a hole." Cohn said an immediate threat of danger is needed to justify the use of force.

"You can't use force because someone didn't obey your order," Cohn said. "There's an obligation to reason with people first."

On Oct. 20, Uintah High School beat Union 17-14, and after the game some Union fans lined to dance the haka — a traditional Polynesian dance that includes stomping, hand motions and chanting — near one of the football field's exits.

Two officers working for Roosevelt police, Stradinger and Wade Butterfield, called for the dancers to move. When the dancing continued, the officers fired pepper spray.

"At the end of the game, the Tongan group did not respond to the request to clear the exit, thus the officers were entitled to use force to clear the exit," Thomas wrote.

Thomas wrote that he considered whether the dancers could be charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, but determined the dancers had the "tacit" approval of others in the area to obstruct the exit, though officers didn't know that.

Thomas said he considered only whether anyone violated Utah's criminal statutes and not whether anyone's civil rights were breached.

Cohn complimented Thomas for a thorough review and said he was disagreeing only with his conclusion.

The Roosevelt police chief had earlier said his officers did not violate any policies, but Thomas launched another review at the request of the ACLU. Roosevelt Police Chief Rick Harrison had previously said he would provide his staff with more training on the use of chemical sprays and cultural diversity.

Stradinger and Butterfield are part-time officers for Roosevelt. Stradinger works full-time as a Utah Highway Patrol trooper. Butterfield has a civilian job.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle