An LA School Police Department officer attempted to de-escalate a fight at a basketball game with pepper spray, hitting several uninvolved students in the process. Critics say these actions violated LASPD policy.
The night of February 3, James A. Garfield High School hosted a basketball match against Theodore Roosevelt High School. After the game, an altercation broke out in the parking lot. The Los Angeles School Police (LASPD) used Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray, to de-escalate the situation. In the process, uninvolved students were exposed to the irritant. Both witnesses and student activists claim LASPD’s actions violated official policy.
Knock LA spoke to a Roosevelt Student impacted by the incident who asked to remain anonymous. At the end of the night, they entered the parking lot to leave along with other students and saw there was a fight happening between two individuals.
“The people who got into a fight, I don’t know them,” the student said. “I heard that they don’t go to Roosevelt anymore. They graduated like last year and two years ago.”
When the situation drew attention from the crowd, LASPD swiftly got involved.
“Everybody started yelling. And the police come in and they start just pepper spraying everywhere,” the student said.
When they tried to get into a car, they were hit with OC spray. The student stated the spray initially hit their chin and then went inside their mouth and left eye. They attempted to move to the other side of the vehicle, and the other student with them finally managed to pull them inside the car. A police officer then leaned through the window holding what the student initially thought was a flashlight, which they later realized was an OC spray canister.
“[The other student] was like, ‘Get out the car, get out the car!’ like, ‘Don’t come in here you already pepper sprayed [us],’” they said.
The students remained in the parking lot for another hour talking to police about what occurred. However, the officer who sprayed the crowd with OC left shortly after the incident.
A source provided Knock LA with the badge numbers and last names of both the officer who administered OC spray, Officer D. East, and the supervising officer, Sergeant J. Ochoa. The LASPD Communications Center provided Knock LA with their first initials, but would not provide additional information to identify the officers.
After speaking to Ochoa for over an hour, the student went home and felt the impact of the OC spray that night.
“So that day, it was like burning real, real bad,” they said. “And the police officer told me that when I get inside the shower, it’s going to affect me a little more. And it actually did. And that night when I went to sleep it cooled down, but it got worse the next day.”
The Controversy Around the Use of OC Spray for Crowd Dispersal
The use of OC spray for crowd dispersal has faced criticism over the years due to the health hazards it presents. OC spray irritates the upper respiratory tract and can immediately cause issues like coughing, sneezing, and chest pain. In rare cases, OC Spray can result in long-term nerve damage or corneal erosion when deployed at a close range. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes long-term issues from riot control agents are “unlikely to occur,” infectious disease specialist Judy Stone pointed out, in a 2016 piece for Forbes, that there had been minimal research into the long-term health impacts of OC spray.
While the Roosevelt student told Knock LA that the more intense burning and irritation passed within a few days, they are still dealing with some health issues over a month after the incident.
“Every time I go to practice and I just stand for a while, my eyes just start going blurry,” the student stated. “I like start feeling weak in my eye. They just start burning like real bad. I just keep wiping them.”
Did LASPD Violate Their Own Policy?
Joseph Williams, director of Students Deserve, believes the OC spray incident marked a clear violation of official LASPD policy. The LASPD Policy Manual specifically states OC spray should not “be used against individuals or groups who merely fail to disperse or do not reasonably appear to present a risk to the safety of officers or the public.”
It specifies that OC spray “is intended as a person-specific dispersal agent and NOT as a crowd dispersal agent” and that LASPD personnel are not allowed to use OC spray “on campus involving persons who reasonably appear to be K-12 students or minors.”
“Even to say if those folks were 18 it was justified still violates the policy if they were in fact LAUSD students or if they were perceived to be LAUSD students,” Williams said. “We know that a number of students, including those as young as 9th grade, were pepper sprayed by school police.”
On March 1, Williams and other members of Police Free LAUSD had a Zoom meeting with members of the LAUSD Division of Operations. LASPD Chief Stephen Zipperman was in attendance and Williams asked him directly about the OC spray incident. According to Williams, Zipperman claimed it had already been investigated.
“Steve Zipperman shared that they had investigated that no students had been pepper sprayed, that the only people pepper sprayed were 18 years old and older and were not students,” Williams said, “and that the officer did not use it as a crowd dispersal agent. Obviously that was completely opposite from what we had heard from numerous students who were pepper sprayed directly by school police in an attempt to disperse the crowd.”
In response to a request for comment, LASPD Lieutenant Nina Buranasombati stated:
As a result of an off-campus physical altercation between two adults following a school-sponsored basketball game on February 3, 2023, the use of pepper spray by a responding school police officer to stop the combatants occurred. As in all instances of this nature, an official police investigation and review process has been initiated. This matter is still being reviewed consistent with policy and procedures.
When asked to confirm whether Zipperman claimed the incident had already been investigated, Buranasombati said she had “no further information to share.”
Two students — Mia Ledesma, a junior at Roosevelt, and Olivia Vaca, a sophomore at Math, Science, Technology Magnet Academy (MSTMA), which is located on Roosevelt’s campus — told Knock LA that an automated call from the principal informed parents there had been an incident at the Roosevelt-Garfield basketball game but, according to Vaca, “They didn’t really go into specifics much.” The students did not learn the extent of what occurred until a Social Justice Club Meeting the following Tuesday.
“When I first heard about it, I was very shocked,” Vaca said. “I thought that immediate action had to be taken for it.”
Ledesma agreed, and said the incident has made her wary of attending future school events.
“When we want to go to events, we’re not sure we won’t be attacked by people who are supposed to be somewhat protecting us,” said Ledesma. “Which is why we don’t agree with having school police and they should be defunded. We have more resources other than having school police on the ground and hurting kids instead of actually keeping us safe.”
Vaca and Ledesma along with other students are working on raising awareness of what occurred in hopes of ensuring the officer who administered the spray faces repercussions.
“It’s completely unacceptable that we would allow, as of right now, to have nothing happen to him when he’s violated so many parts of the policy that have been put in place,” Vaca said.
The students have already taken some action including meeting LAUSD board members to discuss the incident, including Dr. Rocio Rivas.
When reached for comment, Rivas said she’s “deeply concerned” about the incident.
“I know that the District is committed to making available counseling support and other services to any student who has been impacted by it,” Rivas said. “We must also take every report or allegation of misconduct seriously, which includes conducting a full and fair investigation into what happened; it’s an essential part of entrusting our schools with the care and safety of our students.”
In the longer term, students want to see concrete policy changes.
“There needs to be more training moving forward because I don’t know how there could be school police and they’re not trained to work with children and they’re not trained to work with teenagers,” Ledesma said. “So more training and policy and protocol [need] to be put in place as well as defunding the school police and having more resources.”
Moving forward, the students want to ensure the wider community is aware of what occurred and intend to write letters to school board officials.
This is an ongoing story and Knock LA will provide updates as we receive them.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of an LAUSD student.