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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Report Blasts Infamous UC Pepper-Spraying

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - A University of California campus officer who pepper-sprayed protesters at close range in November bears primary responsibility for the "unreasonable" use of force, a task force said Wednesday, describing the findings of a new report.

The blistering report says the infamous incident "should and could have been prevented."

"There was no reason to have used the pepper-spray," former California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso said at an open meeting at the UC Davis campus to describe the report's findings.

Reynoso, a professor emeritus at the UC Davis School of Law and head of the 12-member task force, blamed campus officials and police for not having an adequate plan for dealing with the student protesters allegedly encamped at a campus quad.

A "leadership team" made up of several school officials and UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi failed to clearly communicate with campus police as to how they should proceed, according to the report.

"The leadership team and the chancellor have to have rules ahead of time for dealing with civil disobedience," Reynoso said. "The informal approach did not the meet the requirements of the crisis. We suggest they have clear procedures of what to do if there's a large demonstration."

This communication breakdown culminated with Lt. John Pike dousing at least a dozen students with the chemical irritant as they huddled together in a line. The report notes that Pike administered the pepper spray from a high-pressure canister called an MK-9, and that the minimum application distance is 6 feet. Pike, however, appeared to spray protesters "at a much closer distance than 6 feet," according to the report.

In February, 19 students filed a federal complaint over the actions of Pike and other officers.

The task force also found there was some confusion as to the legality of the police operation on Nov. 18 to dismantle the tents and disperse the students. "Most obviously, if there was no legal basis for deploying the police to take down the tents, the operation should never have taken place," the report said. "Without a clear understanding of the legal foundation for the operation, the University could not communicate effectively to the protesters. Protesters have a right to be told what laws they are alleged to be breaking."

Risk-management firm Kroll Consulting, whose expertise was enlisted by the task force in investigating the incident, noted Katehi and other administrators had an unfounded fear that their campus was being invaded by outsiders from Occupy-style protests in Oakland, where there had been reports of drugs and violence.

"We were worried at the time about that because the issues from Oakland were in the news and the use of drugs and sex and other things, and you know here we have very young students," Katehi said in an interview transcribed in the report.

"We worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside without any knowledge of their record. ... If anything happens to any student while we're in violation of policy, it's a very tough thing to overcome."

UC David Police Chief Andrea Spicuzza also said her officers believed that 80 percent of the protesters camped out in the quad were not students.

But the task force concluded that "tese concerns were not supported by any evidence obtained by Kroll."

Kroll's analysis also pointed out the folly in Katehi's decision to deploy campus police at 3 p.m. "Even if the campus police had the legal authority to remove the tents, the timing of the operation was ill-chosen and directly led to the gathering of the crowd and the encirclement of the police," the Kroll report says. "A major police operation that confronts protesters and activists should be mounted during a time when the number of supporters can be minimized, not maximized. Three o'clock in the afternoon on a sunny fall day at the center of the campus Quad seems guaranteed to bring the maximum number of onlookers and protesters to the scene, and in fact that is exactly what occurred."

Students and professors lined up by the dozens for a chance to vent at the Wednesday meeting. The group included students who were pepper-sprayed, many of whom were angry about the delays that preceded this report and that the officers were not being immediately punished.

"Why are we still being harassed and threatened by the administration and the same police force?" asked Geoffrey Wildanger, a graduate student who was sprayed by Pike and belongs to the group suing the university and its police department.

"I want an actual solution that requires the administration be changed, if not given rid of, and the UCPD to leave immediately," he said, to enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Reynoso attributed the report's delay to a California law that shields police officers and an inability by the task force to interview the officers involved.

"Many of those delays were caused by the legislators in a place called Sacramento," Reynoso said.

"We did not interview [the officers] because of the policeman's bill of rights," he added. "We did not have a subpoena so we don't have Lt. Pike's story."

If observers had not videotaped the incident, the public may never have known exactly what happened at the campus that afternoon in November, Reynoso said.

Police had said they felt threatened by the students and the presence of rocks, but tapes revealed that the students presented no danger to the officers.

It was later revealed that students used the rocks solely as a paperweight.

"What concerns me is but for the reality of the Kroll report finding something like 60 tapes of what happened, without that, folk would have a tendency to believe exactly what was said, that the officers were afraid for their lives," Reynoso said. "Without those tapes, I think folk would have believed that, and that would have been the end of it."

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