Protesters sitting on the ground supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement on the campus of the University of California, Davis took a face full of pepper spray at close range from an officer in riot gear in an incident that was captured on cellphone video and spread virally across the Internet on Saturday.
Chancellor Linda Katehi described the video images as "chilling" and said she was forming a task force to investigate even as a faculty group called for her resignation because of the police action on Friday.
However, a law enforcement official who watched the clip called the use of force "fairly standard police procedure."
In the video, an officer dispassionately pepper-sprays a line of several sitting protesters who flinch and cover their faces but remain passive with their arms interlocked as onlookers shriek and scream out for the officer to stop.
"The use of the pepper spray as shown on the video is chilling to us all and raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this," chancellor Linda Katehi said in a message posted on the school's website Saturday.
The protest was held in support of the overall Occupy Wall Street movement and in solidarity with protesters at the University of California, Berkeley who were jabbed by police with batons on November 9.
The UC Davis video images, which were circulated on YouTube and widely elsewhere online, prompted immediate outrage among faculty and students, with the Davis Faculty Association saying in a letter on Saturday that Katehi should resign.
"The Chancellor's role is to enable open and free inquiry, not to suppress it," the faculty association said in its letter.
It called Katehi's authorization of police force a "gross failure of leadership."
At a news conference later on Saturday, Katehi said what the video shows is "sad and really very inappropriate." The events surrounding the protest have been hard on her personally, but she had no plans to resign, she said.
"I do not think that I have violated the policies of the institution. I have worked personally very hard to make this campus a safe campus for all," she said.
Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.
"When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."
After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of "active resistance" from protesters.