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Utah police absolved in use of force on haka dancers

By Paul Foy / Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 8:31 a.m. HST, Feb 3, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY » Two police officers were cleared of wrongdoing Thursday for using pepper spray and a baton on a dozen spectators performing a traditional Polynesian war dance after a Utah high school's losing football game.

Utah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas found that the two officers were justified in taking action because they feared a riot and because they were unfamiliar with the haka war dance.

A familiar sight at University of Hawaii Warriors games, the haka has more recently spread to at least a dozen high school football teams, especially those with large numbers of Polynesian students.

The October incident was caught on a blurry cellphone video, which was posted on YouTube and has logged 1.8 million views. The footage shows police pushing back the dancers at a high school in Roosevelt, about 140 miles east of Salt Lake City.

Thomas called the pepper spray and baton appropriate "weapons" used by Roosevelt officers to clear a stadium exit that the dancers were blocking. They repeatedly ignored police commands to "make a hole," but they believed their routine had the tacit approval of school officials and football fans, he said.

"Therefore, I do not believe the performers ‘recklessly' caused a public inconvenience," he said.

In his 21-page opinion, Thomas found that "the officers did not use unlawful force. Therefore, the officers cannot be charged with criminal assault."

His finding supported the results of an internal police investigation, which also said the officers' actions were justified. Thomas has said he opened his probe at the request of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which disputed his conclusions and noted that his second-by-second analysis of the YouTube video shows police used force only 17 seconds after making their first command.

Joe Cohn, interim legal director for the ACLU of Utah, disagreed with the county attorney's finding. "Force is lawful only when it's justified, and not for disobedience to orders — it's for officers who believe they face an immediate threat of danger. There's nothing in this report or investigation that indicates anyone was in any danger," he said.

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