Nearly nine months after Department of Public Safety officers used tear gas on protesters without warning, the department’s new director said officers should take a different approach before dispersing the chemical agent.
“It’s really imperative to make sure that you’re providing a warning before you’re actually releasing a chemical agent; it’s a use of force, essentially,” said new Director Jeff Glover, the former Tempe Police Chief that Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs tapped to run DPS earlier this year.
As the state Senate debated budget bills last June, pro-choice protesters gathered outside the legislature in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. While many did not know the Senate was still in session, a small contingent broke away from the larger crowd and began banging on the locked Senate doors, with at least one person kicking a door so hard it bent inward. In response, DPS officers deployed tear gas into the larger crowd without issuing a warning or ordering the protesters to disperse.
Many legislators said they feared for their own safety at the time, and Senate Republican spokeswoman Kim Quintero put out a statement characterizing it as an “attempted insurrection” caused by “violent” pro-abortion protesters. But some protesters and civil rights advocates called the use of tear gas without a dispersal warning inappropriate, arguing no one broke the law and there were children in the crowd.
“There is an expectation that if they’re intending to use chemical weapons, especially as a dispersal tactic, that they need to provide warnings to individuals,” civil rights attorney Heather Hamel said last year.
Glover, the former Tempe Chief of Police, seemed to agree. “There is an expectation that you are going to provide a warning,” he said. “You don’t know who may be in the crowd; you might have innocent people there.”
Glover said the last year’s incident has already been reviewed internally by the department and that he would “go back, evaluate and double check.”
The department’s use of force policy requires troopers to complete a “Use of Force Report” within seven days of an incident in which force, including chemical agents, are used. The Arizona Capitol Times filed a public records request in November 2022 to obtain a copy of the report, but DPS has not yet provided it.
Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who was in the Senate the night of the incident and sits on the Senate committee charged with reviewing Hobbs’ nominees, said, “I would’ve shot it off earlier, but that’s just me.”
But he said he was satisfied with Glover’s position.
“I think everybody here understands that there are going to be people from varying political persuasions that are going to come down here and sometimes they’re going to be very upset, and I want to accommodate that as much as I possibly can even if it does inconvenience me,” Shope said, noting that there should be a line drawn when legislators fear for their personal safety.
Glover addressed the question of where that “line” should be drawn during a hearing before the state Senate Committee on Director Nominations following a line of questioning from Shope and Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, that was inspired by last year’s protest outside of the Senate.
“This is kind of a little bit of a sensitive idea for us because…we had to evacuate ourselves to the basement of this building during one of these events,” Shope told Glover.
After Kerr asked if protesters should “be left to exhaust themselves” or if law enforcement “should intervene to quell the unrest,” Glover said police should respect the rights of peaceful protesters but should make arrests if those protesters turn violent or commit crimes.
“If it’s something that we are looking at, and we know that this is now going outside of those lines where it’s becoming a criminal action, then we have to enforce; we have to act on that,” Glover said.
The committee voted unanimously to recommend the Senate confirm Glover’s appointment.
Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, who chairs the committee, followed up, asking Glover if he ascribed to the “normal” definition of peaceful protest.
“Yes, normal definition of peaceful is somebody that is maybe marching up and down the sidewalk, not creating any criminal damage – just basically maybe chants, holding signs,” Glover said.
There is some evidence that the protesters outside the Senate last year largely fell into that definition.
Video evidence and witness testimony showed that protestors at the Senate doors represented a minority of the overall crowd that gathered at the Capitol, and social media posts showed there were children in the crowd when DPS officers fired tear gas.
“The other thing I pointed out… was it’s kind of quiet, like in between chants and just kind of people talking and hanging out,” protester Brittany Conklin said of the larger protest. “So it just wasn’t a riot. It wasn’t crazy. It was really sedate.”
A DPS spokesman said officers believed the crowd near the doors “had every intention on entering the Senate building” but also confirmed no protester entered the building and the department made no arrests that night.
Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University in the U.K., said the actions of that group didn’t justify firing tear gas into the larger crowd.
Stott, director of the Keele Policing Academic Collaboration, researches crowd behavior and dynamics and has worked with several police departments in the U.S. to update their crowd control guidance based on the science of crowd psychology.
“Just because some people in a demonstration…act in a potentially unlawful way, it doesn’t sacrifice the constitutional rights of everybody else in that demonstration who is not there to behave in a criminal fashion,” he said. “So the police have to take a more sophisticated approach to how they handle crowd events, because the complexity of how constitutional rights played themselves out in the context of a protest.”
The use of tear gas to disperse the crowd last summer also appears to run contrary to guidance provided by DPS’ own use of force policy, though the policy does provide some wiggle room based on the specific circumstances of a given incident.
“Whenever possible, SWAT operators shall limit the use of chemical agents to situations where it reasonably appears the effects will be suffered only by those involved in the incident,” according to a copy of the policy provided by the department following a public records request.
The policy also states that before using chemical agents, officers should consider the potential exposure of innocent people and, “in some situations,” officers should avoid the use of tear gas “unless an extreme emergency exists and immediate action is necessary to preserve human life.” The policy indicates that includes situations “(w)here the elderly or children will be exposed,” noting that people with respiration problems can develop fatal illness within minutes of exposure.
Stott said the methods of policing crowds in America is outdated and use of force policies are often designed for situations involving one-on-one interactions and those tactics don’t take into account group dynamics that are not present in interpersonal interactions.
He said experts often use the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” as it relates to the doctrine guiding crowd control techniques in the U.S., which assumes crowds are inherently violent.
“So police can gear themselves up with that expectation in mind, but then they act towards crowds in ways that produce the very violence that they’re trying to prevent – unintentionally,” Stott said.
From a psychological perspective, Stott said the use of weaponry to control crowds corresponds with a low level of communication between police and protesters.
“So in a sense, the doctrine of the police is that they kind of do nothing until it gets to the point where they feel they have to do something,” he said. “And then they throw everything at the situation in a way that affects everybody.”
He said there are better ways to handle the situation, including engaging with protesters early on to build lines of communication, which could allow police to proactively identify members of a crowd “with criminal intent.”
“So you can often deal with situations without having to fight…they can deal with situations and deescalate them and avoid situations in which a reaction or more forceful reaction is necessary,” Stott said.
During the Senate committee hearing, Glover emphasized the need to communicate with protesters, including reaching out to protest organizers before the event.
“When you are able to start having conversations with those that are actually leading these efforts, you find that a lot of times they will start providing you information or context as to what they’re going to do,” Glover said. “That actually better prepares us as law enforcement professionals to be able to do our job.”>