As a California congressman, Arizona superintendent candidate Frank Riggs became the subject of criticism after activists in his local district office had liquid pepper spray applied to their eyes.EXPAND
As a California congressman, Arizona superintendent candidate Frank Riggs became the subject of criticism after activists in his local district office had liquid pepper spray applied to their eyes.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr; "Fire in the Eyes" (1999)

Superintendent Candidate Frank Riggs Defends 1997 Police Response to Activists

As a California congressman, Frank Riggs defended law enforcement officers after they applied liquid pepper spray directly to the eyes of activists staging a sit-in at his local district office.

The 1997 incident was a flashpoint during Riggs' three terms in Congress. And to this day, the Republican nominee for Arizona superintendent of public instruction stands by the officers.

All the same, he has faced plenty of previous questions about the protest. In light of an ongoing debate over police brutality, the response to the nonviolent demonstrators at his office remains relevant. Even back then, the pepper-spray incident was notorious and resulted in a drawn-out lawsuit.

On October 16, 1997, during a series of protests against logging in California forests, four women with the radical environmental group Earth First! locked their arms together inside metal sleeves around a tree stump, which they hauled into Riggs' local office in Eureka.

After ordering them to leave, police officers and sheriff's deputies used cotton swabs to dab a liquid form of oleoresin capsicum – the burning chemical agent in pepper spray – on the eyes of two activists. When they continued to refuse to unlock their arms, an officer doused an activist's face with regular pepper spray from several inches away while gripping her head.

In an interview on Wednesday, Riggs said that he was in a different county at the time of the protest and only learned about it after the demonstrators had been arrested.

He defended the police response as reasonable, and emphasized that the activists were warned repeatedly to depart his office.

"I just did not feel it was my role to second-guess a decision that local law enforcement made. I wasn't present," he told Phoenix New Times. "I think the record proves that the protesters were done no lasting physical harm of any kind."

Video of the incident at his congressional office appears in the 1999 documentary "Fire in the Eyes," a critical look at the county's habit of using pepper agents on anti-logging activists. Reflecting on the protest several years ago, the local North Coast Journal called it "a dark chapter in Humboldt County's own history."

The activists later sued the Eureka Police Department and Humboldt County. After two juries deadlocked in 1997 and 1998, a federal judge in 2005 finally awarded the group of eight plaintiffs $1 each after ruling that the officers used excessive force, according to the AP.

In a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on October 31, 1997, Riggs pushed back on the notion that the officers' use of force on the protesters was unjustified. He criticized media reports of the incident, calling them one-sided.

Riggs depicted a terrifying scene: More than 60 protesters "stormed his office," their leader wearing a ski mask, and accosted his staff. When they offloaded the tree stump in the parking lot, Riggs said, there was a thud so loud that employees thought "some sort of a bomb had gone off outside."

"These were not peaceful protesters," Riggs said in the speech. "These were reckless, wanton lawbreakers. My message to the media is get it right, and tell the rest of the story."

The seemingly callous words from Riggs sparked controversy, and he became the target of criticism in the media.

"This is a rather remarkable defense of street justice from a congressman who worked as a police officer and deputy sheriff from 1976-1983," the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board wrote at the time. Swabbing the protesters' eyes with pepper spray was wrong – the officers should have simply arrested the offenders, the board argued.

"The determination of a punishment to fit the crime should be made by the courts, not by the cops on the scene," the Chronicle board wrote. "And 'cruel and unusual punishment' is not one of the options."

A former police officer, Riggs has strongly backed increasing funding for school resource officers (SROs) during his campaign for superintendent. His input will almost certainly be included should lawmakers pursue a school safety bill during the upcoming legislative session.

Riggs faces Democrat Kathy Hoffman, a 32-year-old speech therapist and first-time candidate, in the race to become Arizona's next schools chief.

"It’s disturbing that Mr. Riggs supported hostile treatment of peaceful protesters in his congressional office," Hoffman said in an emailed statement to New Times. "Not only were these individuals subjected to liquid pepper spray dropped into their eyes, one of the demonstrators was a 16-year-old girl."

Hoffman pledged that as superintendent, she will work toward respectful dialogue instead of divisiveness.

In addition to overseeing the Arizona Department of Education, the superintendent can wield a bully pulpit on education issues. Next year, those issues might include another attempt to pass a school safety plan from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey.

Last spring, Ducey unveiled a school safety plan which included more funding for SROs – uniformed, sworn police officers stationed on school grounds – in response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The governor's proposal went nowhere in the Legislature, but either Riggs or Hoffman may find themselves in the middle of a debate over campus policing if the plan is revived during the next legislative session.

Hoffman opposes adding more SROs to schools, and instead favors increased funding for mental health counselors. She has also promised that as superintendent, she'll work against any effort to arm teachers. Riggs, on the other hand, says that SROs perform a valuable role in schools. He expressed an interest in working with the governor to pass the school safety plan.

When asked what voters should think of his stance on policing, given his take on the 1997 incident, Riggs pointed out that while serving as a police officer, he was never accused of using excessive force. "I would offer up my law enforcement record to the contrary," he responded.

And Riggs doesn't hide the fact that his approach to school security is an area of contrast to Hoffman.

"Are people going to extrapolate that I'm going to be supportive of school resource officers, whereas my opponent is not and has said that SROs engage in discriminatory practices? Then, so be it," Riggs said. "I think that's a defining issue at that point."

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