No charges will be filed in an incident that caused an uproar in two Utah communities last October. Uintah County attorney Mark Thomas released a 21-page opinion on February 2 detailing his reasons for not filing charges against police officers or those involved with the Haka dance. After a game between rival high schools Uintah and Union High, a contingent of Union fans, who were Tongan, performed a traditional war chant in an attempt to boost morale. Police eventually used pepper spray and batons to disperse the group after a police officer asked the group to “make a hole” several times, the ABC4 Salt Lake City reported.
“It has been determined that there are no criminal charges that are appropriate in relation to the Officers or any of the participants performing the Haka,” Thomas told ABC4. “I do not believe the performers recklessly caused a public inconvenience.”
The Tongan men and boys, numbering approximately 15, were said to be blocking the exit from the field according to police. When the cops yelled for them to move, with coaches, players and family members attempting to assuage the cop’s fears and let them know the performance was okay, the police allegedly began using pepper spray, and a baton, to disperse them.
At the time of the incident, a Roosevelt resident who asked The Desert News to identify her only as Breana, said her husband was among of the performers who were sprayed. “It was continual spraying and spraying,” Breana told The Desert News. She also said that not only was her husband sprayed, he was hit in the face with a police baton, as well as reporting that her 4-year-old son was also exposed to the spray.
Another person on the scene, Shawn Mitchell, told The Desert News that his young son and daughter, as well as his mother-in-law, were affected by the pepper spray. He called the response to the Haka an overreaction.
“I didn’t see anything that looked like there could be a threat,” he said.
In his opinion, Thomas said that although the Tongan group’s intention was to show honor to the Union High School football players by sharing their culture via the Haka, the location of this display stopped people who were trying to exit the field. “One could fairly argue that the obstruction would have been minor because it would have lasted a short time,” Thomas wrote, “However, if the circumstances were changed from a football field to an abortion clinic, one can more clearly sense the value of freedom of movement.”
As for the officers use of a baton and pepper spray on a group of non-violent people trying to support a high school football team, Thomas wrote that the use of ‘intermediate weapons’ was appropriate under the circumstances that the officers were aware of at the time. He went on to write that the officers did not use unlawful force, and therefore cannot be charged with a criminal assault.