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Courtyards Incident Review Complete: The Path Forward

Dear University of Maryland community,

I am writing to inform you of the results of the University of Maryland Police Department's (UMPD) investigation of its response to a 911 call about an on-campus party at The Courtyards on May 21, 2016.

At 1:46 AM, two officers arrived at an apartment where a graduation party was underway with about 60 people present, mostly African Americans. The callers had reported a potential fight, someone with a bat, and underage drinking. When the police arrived, they were again told by persons at the parking lot that there could be fighting in the apartment.

Subsequently, to control and disperse the party crowd, UMPD officers deployed pepper spray twice, first in a breezeway outside the apartment, later in the parking lot. Two individuals (one a UMD student) were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and failing to obey lawful orders. In response to calls for back-up support, eventually some 15 officers plus Fire Department medics were at the scene.

UMPD policy requires an administrative review after any use of force. Therefore, UMPD conducted a comprehensive, five-week investigation with due diligence and due process. Investigators interviewed witnesses and studied video recordings from officers' body cameras. Chief David Mitchell's summary report of the findings, conclusions, and actions are at http://umpdnews.umd.edu/node/646. Chief Mitchell met with some of the affected individuals today. At their request, the video footage will be released to the media on Monday, to give the students time to discuss with friends and family.

The main finding is that deployment of pepper spray, while justified under the circumstances, could have been avoided if the police, upon arrival at the apartment, had been more tactful and professional, as prescribed by UMPD policy.

When the police knocked on the door, those who opened it appeared surprised by the claim of a possible fight inside. They denied there was any fight. The antagonistic approach of the police in this initial encounter, and the demand for a break-up of the party, led to an escalation of tensions. The ensuing resistance and non-compliant conduct by some party attendees resulted eventually in the deployment of pepper spray.

The investigation found that the first use of pepper spray in the breezeway was justified because an officer was surrounded by some 10 agitated party attendees, one of whom was being restrained by others from lunging at the officer.

The second use of pepper spray at the parking lot was also deemed justified. It was an uncontrolled scene, with some people screaming at the police, others assisting the police to maintain calm, and a medic calling for help to clear the crowd.  However, the manner of deployment violated UMPD policy.

Further, the investigation found that the 911 call was a false report. Individuals (not UMD students) who were denied entry to the party retaliated by calling the police with a fabricated story of a possible fight.

As a result of these findings, Chief Mitchell (1) obtained criminal charge summons against those who made the false report of a fight; (2) suspended an officer without pay for two weeks for violating UMPD policies; (3) announced training in cultural diversity and implicit bias for all UMPD personnel, conducted by outside experts; and (4) ordered a review of UMPD's policies and protocols on the use of force, with input from members of the UMD community (including student leaders) and criminal justice professionals. In addition, the charges against the two persons arrested in the incident were dropped.

I applaud Chief Mitchell for his transparency, accountability, and decisiveness. The men and women of UMPD are an integral and valued part of our campus community. They are dedicated guardians, sworn to serve and protect. All of us respect and appreciate the difficult work they do, the sacrifices they make in the line of duty. We owe them our support.  In turn, they recognize that "community policing," not "confrontational policing," is essential to building trust between the police and the policed.

I thank the students involved in this incident who cooperated with the investigation. The staffs of the Nyumburu Cultural Center, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Division of Student Affairs have been invaluable resources for all involved.

This is a charged time in our nation.  As a society, we must find a path forward to come together. I deeply regret the incident at The Courtyards, but I believe that the actions by Chief Mitchell and UMPD are important steps on our campus to bridge chasms, salve anguish and anger, and promote justice.

Sincerely,

Wallace D. Loh

President