An incident that lasted only a few minutes Tuesday night in a library at the University of California at Los Angeles is capturing attention worldwide and raising questions about what constitutes legitimate police action on a college campus. In the incident, filmed and distributed online, campus police repeatedly stunned a student with a Taser when he couldn't produce an ID.
“This is very unusual,” said Nancy Greenstein, a spokeswoman for UCLA's police department. She added that she has been fielding calls from as far away as London. “I’ve never dealt with something like this, and I’ve been here 10 years.” The department has released a statement saying that officers deemed it necessary to use force and that the incident is being investigated.
Students at UCLA have set up Facebook and MySpace sites to organize and plan to hold a protest today. “I think it’s ridiculous that they used their Tasers,” said Combiz Abdolrahimi, a third year student in international economics who is coordinating the protest. Abdolrahimi said that he became involved after viewing a video of the event and that he does not know the student who was involved.
The confrontation took place Tuesday evening after 11:00 p.m., when campus security officers were making their rounds through the library, checking students for identification as part of their normal security procedures. Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a student, did not produce his identification and was apparently asked to leave.
“I went back to my work, and when I looked up, I saw that [Tabatabainejad] was already LEAVING the library,” said Laila, a UCLA student via e-mail. Laila asked that her last name not be used. She said that she does not know Tabatabainejad and was just another student studying in the library. “He had his backpack on his shoulders, and was next to my computer (about 2 feet away) when he was approached by two [UCLA police] officers.”
Laila said that the officers grabbed Tabatabainejad’s arm and he began to shout for the officers to stop touching him.
Two videos of the incident, shot with cell phone cameras, can be found online. One video is carried by the Los Angeles local NBC affiliate. In the video, officers can be heard shouting numerous times, “Get up! Stand up!” The video is shot from behind a table with computers, but Tabatabainejad apparently pops up briefly before falling. A Taser can then be heard buzzing.
An officer is then heard shouting, “Stand up!” A female student in the background begins crying, and a male voice can be heard saying, “I don’t believe this is happening.”
Officers continue shouting “Stand up!” numerous times.
A male voice yells, “Stop.” And a female cries, “He just stood up!”
Tabatabainejad then comes to his feet, arms apparently cuffed behind his back, supported by two officers. He then falls again and disappears as a swarm of students rush forward, blocking the camera. In a later scene, Tabatabainejad is shown, being escorted away by two officers with his hands cuffed behind his back.
NBC reported that students claimed that Tabatabainejad was stunned with a Taser at least five times.
A video on YouTube shows an equally chaotic scene in the library. Somebody off-screen, apparently Tabatabainejad, can be heard screaming multiple times, “Don’t touch me!”
Tabatabainejad then says, “Here’s your Patriot Act! Here’s your fucking abuse of authority!” Students can then be heard asking the officers for their badges.
Students can be heard protesting in the background. “Don’t do that!” says a woman. The officers then stun Tabatabainejad with the Taser.
In the next scene Tabatabainejad has his hands apparently cuffed behind his back and is next to a stairwell. An officer at his side leans forward and says, “Stand up. You’re going to get tased.” They then apparently stun him again, and his feet fly out from beneath him as he leaps into the air. Students then rush forward, blocking the camera, and can be heard screaming at the officers.
The video then cuts to a different location, apparently by the front entrance to the library An officer is telling a student to get back. Pointing in one direction, the officer says “Back over there. Because I said so. Back over there, or you’re gonna’ get tased too.” The student then leaves.
“Investigators are reviewing the incident and the officers' actions. The investigation and review will be thorough, vigorous and fair,” said Norman Abrams, acting chancellor , in a press release. He noted that the rules about checking ID in the library after 11 p.m. are well known.
In a separate statement, UCLA’s police department said that Tabatabainejad refused multiple requests to leave and went limp when officers attempted to escort him from the library. The officers then deemed it necessary to user the Taser because Tabatabainejad encouraged students to join his resistance and a crowd began to gather.
But Laila, who said she witnessed the whole event, denied that Tabatabainejad encouraged students to join. “Students were trying to help him because they could see what was happening was wrong," she said. She added that dozens of student witnesses were angry at the officers' actions. If over 30 students were objecting, she said, "how can anyone think what was happening was right?”
The use of Tasers varies across campuses. The campus police departments at Columbia, Princeton and Vanderbilt Universities, and the Universities of California at Berkeley and Southern California do not carry Tasers. However, officers do carry Tasers at UC-Davis.
“I’m not commenting on what is appropriate or is not appropriate,” said Steven Healy, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. Healy said that videos of police using force, while troubling to watch, can sometimes give a distorted view of what officers are doing. “Unfortunately, many times there is no context to see what led to it,” he said.
Greenstein said that the police department is investigating the matter, but will probably not have a report until after the winter break.
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