A Uintah County attorney yesterday found the Utah officers were justified in taking action because they feared a riot and were unfamiliar with the haka.
The October incident was caught on a blurry mobile phone video, which was posted on YouTube and logged 1.8 million views. It shows police pushing back the dancers at a high school in Roosevelt, east of Salt Lake City.
The officers have said they were unaware the crowd was performing a haka.
Yesterday, Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira said the response of those watching a haka overseas depended on their level of cultural education.
He said he had no idea if the haka had been “made up” or why the dozen spectators had been performing it.
The Associated Press reported the haka had recently spread to at least a dozen US high school football teams, especially those with large numbers of Polynesian pupils. (TW.com | If you do a youtube search you’ll see that haka are performed by US football supporters regularly at games).
Uintah County attorney G. Mark Thomas called the pepper spray and baton appropriate “weapons” as used by Roosevelt police officers to clear a stadium exit the dancers were blocking.
The performers repeatedly ignored police commands but they believed their routine had the tacit approval of school officials and football fans, he said. “Therefore, I do not believe the performers `recklessly’ caused a public inconvenience,” he said.
In his 21-page opinion, Mr Thomas found that “the officers did not use unlawful force. Therefore, the officers cannot be charged with criminal assault.”
His finding supported the results of an internal police investigation, which also said the officers’ actions were justified. Mr Thomas has said he opened his probe at the request of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which disputed his conclusions and noted that his second-by-second analysis of the YouTube video shows police used force only 17 seconds after making their first command.
Tensions were high as rival high schools in Vernal and Roosevelt were each winless before their final game of the season.
“There is a long history of rival conduct which includes occasional skirmishes during sporting events, occasional vandalism and lots of bravado from athletes and fans of both schools,” Mr Thomas wrote.
The Vernal high school won the game over a disputed call.
A touchdown by the Roosevelt team had been reversed and their fans were heckling referees, he said.
Officer Luke Stradinger, who used the pepper spray, said in a report he had “never seen such an event, or even heard of such a thing” as the haka.