By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY — The first time the police in the small Utah state town of Roosevelt saw a haka, they thought a riot was happening.
So they used pepper spray and batons on the spectators performing New Zealand's native Maori challenge following a high school game of American football, including a dozen people from a single family, one aged 4.
An investigation by the police of Roosevelt, 230 kilometers (140 miles) east of Salt Lake City, cleared their own officers of wrongdoing in the October incident and said their actions were appropriate because they feared a riot was imminent.
But the Utah branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said the police report was "anything but objective" in a letter sent this week to Duchesne County Attorney Stephen Foote.
The ACLU was concerned that the decision to pepper spray during a cultural ritual may have violated the spectators' constitutional rights, interim director Joseph Cohn wrote. He also noted that the police failed to consider a video of the haka or statements from 15 witnesses who said they did not feel threatened by the performance.
A haka, which usually lasts less than a minute, has been performed by New Zealand rugby teams as a pre-match challenge for more than 120 years around the world. The challenge has also been adopted by its national teams in rugby league, basketball and even ice hockey, and was further popularized by flash mobs during the recent Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
The haka has spread to at least a dozen American football teams at U.S. high schools, especially those with large numbers of Polynesians.
On Oct. 20, one Polynesian family drove 200 kilometers to Roosevelt to watch a relative play his final game for Union High School. Union lost to finish the season winless. To cheer up the team, a group of Polynesian men and boys performed a haka.
Officer Luke Stradinger, who deployed pepper spray, apologized in the police report for causing "discomfort" to innocent bystanders, but said he wasn't familiar with the haka and was concerned because the group was blocking the only exit from the field for the teams.
"I have never seen such an event, or even heard of such a thing," Stradinger said.
Officer Wade Butterfield, who used a baton to disperse the group, said he became worried during the game because some of the people were yelling obscenities at the referees and acting in an unsportsmanlike manner.
"I have seen a riot firsthand and know how dangerous they can be in an instant," Butterfield said. "No more force was used than was necessary to defuse the situation."
Roosevelt police said officers will be given additional training in cultural diversity and customs.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press