The Berkeley City Council on Tuesday authorized police to use pepper spray on violent protesters, a move that comes as the liberal stronghold braces to host a number of conservative firebrands whose events have triggered clashes in the past.
Police Chief Andrew Greenwood sought permission to use the tool when dealing with violent crowds in the city, which has grappled in recent months with politically motivated violence between far-right and far-left groups.
In a 6-3 vote, the council approved a change to the two-decade-old policy that banned pepper spray as a crowd-control weapon.
Under the amended policy, police are still prohibited from using pepper spray to control or disperse crowds and cannot spray those engaged in unlawful but nonviolent resistance, such as lying down to block a street or doorway.
But police may use the weapon on specific people in a crowd "who are committing acts of violence upon police or others," the revised policy states.
The council members "understand that we are asking them for this tool for a very specific set of circumstances where we're having to deal with a very specific kind of threat to our police line," Greenwood told reporters after the vote.
In a memo to the council, Greenwood said the city has been the focus of an "unprecedented effort to be made a battleground for extremist groups."
Across the nation, he added, there's been an uptick in violence and crime by extremist groups targeting free speech, which the department is committed to protecting.
The ban on pepper spray as a force option "limits the police department's ability to respond effectively" to violence and protect those exercising their free speech rights, Greenwood said.
With the ability to use pepper spray, he added, officers would be less likely to unleash tear gas, which can affect bystanders.
Councilwoman Linda Maio, who supported the policy change, said that police need more options as they face the likelihood of confrontations during upcoming speaker events.
Far-right firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and the conservative pundit Ann Coulter are all expected to speak at UC Berkeley this month.
"This is a new phenomenon that is evolving, and we really don't know what to expect," Maio said.
But Councilwoman Kate Harrison opposed the change, saying she was concerned that potential pepper spray use would scare off peaceful demonstrators.
Councilwoman Cheryl Davila said she didn't see the need for stepped-up measures after the last few protests, which she said were largely peaceful except for a few fights that blew up on social media.
The use of pepper spray, she said, could escalate violence.
"Why are we going there, why are we doing this?" Davila said. "We are just continuing the fear ideology of the Trump administration."
In the memo, Greenwood listed a series of events this year where "large coordinated groups of masked extremists" attacked peaceful protesters and police officers.
In April, pro-Trump demonstrators and counter-protesters clashed at a "Patriots Day" rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Fistfights erupted and both groups threw rocks and sticks at each other.
Twenty-one people were arrested and 11 people were injured. At least six were taken to a hospital for treatment, including one who had been stabbed.
Police that day seized knives, stun guns and poles — and even recovered an improvised explosive device.
Most recently, on Aug. 27, the memo said, hundreds of masked protesters showed up to a demonstration at the same park with a flatbed truck filled with shields and weapons.
After distributing the shields, the group formed a line and ignited smoke bombs, while a speaker prepared the crowd for a violent confrontation.
11:45 p.m.: This article was updated with a quote from the police chief and background on the violence in Berkeley.