DAVIS, Calif. - The riot-clad police officer who pepper sprayed a row of peaceful Occupy Wall Street protesters at a California university last week is a retired U.S. Marines sergeant twice honored for his police work on campus.
Lt. John Pike started working for the University of California, Davis police force in 2001. Now, as one of four lieutenants, he supervises more than one-third of the force including the investigations unit.
Pike has been honored twice for meritorious service, including a 2006 incident when he decided against using pepper spray against a patient in the campus hospital who was threatening his colleagues with scissors.
But an alleged anti-gay slur by Pike also figured in a discrimination lawsuit a former police officer filed against the department, which ended in a $240,000 settlement in 2008.
The footage of Pike pepper spraying students has set off a debate about how far law enforcement can and should go to disperse peaceful demonstrators.
Many students, lawmakers and even the university's chancellor have called the officers' actions a horrific example of unnecessary force. But some experts on police tactics say, depending on the circumstances, pepper spray can be more effective to de-escalate a tense situation than dragging off protesters or swinging at them with truncheons.
"Between verbalized commands and knock-down, drag-out fights, there's quite a bit of wiggle room," said David Klinger, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer and instructor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who reviewed the pepper spray footage.
The university announced Monday that it has placed the police chief and two officers on administrative leave to restore trust and calm.
Pepper spray is an inflammatory agent that derives its active ingredient from chili peppers. When the spray is deployed, it causes nearly instant inflammation, resulting in dilation of the capillaries in the eyes, paralysis of the larynx and a burning sensation on the skin.
The protest at UC Davis was held in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement and in solidarity with protesters at the University of California, Berkeley who were struck by police with batons on Nov. 9.
The UC Davis footage shows two officers spraying students with the chemical agent as the crowd cries out, then a slight delay before police start hauling off some of those seated while other protesters cough violently and try to crawl away.
The spray the officers used ranked about halfway between the highest and lowest concentrations of the commercially available substance.
Nine UC Davis students hit by pepper spray were treated, two were taken to hospitals and later released, university officials said. Ten people were arrested.
Since the video began circulating Friday night, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said she has been inundated with calls from alumni, students and faculty to speed up an investigation. Students and faculty have called for her resignation.